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Thursday, 3 November 2011

Review of The One Ring

Thursday, November 03, 2011

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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
Well, I suppose I should mention something about it anyway. The One Ring takes place in the areas around Mirkwood five years after the death of Smaug. You can play as a Barding, Beorning, Dwarf, Elf, Hobbit or Woodman and you get to choose from a number of Callings: Scholar, Slayer, Treasure Hunter, Wanderer and Warden. These two choices are what will make up the core of your character, but you will also choose Skills as well as a set of Traits and some gear. So that's that.

The Set
The game comes in a slipcase containing the two core rulebooks and a set of seven custom dice. There's the Adventurer's Book (190 pages) and the Loremaster's Book (141 pages) and they're both soft cover. There are also two maps of the region of Middle-Earth relevant to the game, namely Mirkwood, the Misty Mountains and the surrounding areas. The graphic design and layout is pretty much spot-on for a Lord of the Rings roleplaying games, it even has art from John Howe himself and John Hodgson's full page spread paintings that each chapter starts with are stunning! I really don't have any complaints on the physical look of the books. Some might be disappointed that the books are not hardcover, but I actually think there are pros and cons to both the soft and hard format so it doesn't influence me in this regard. I quite like the slipcase approach as you get the sturdiness of a hardcover book with the ease of reading a softcover.

Anyway, when reading the books you can tell that the designers have allowed themselves to be inspired by many of the "new wave" indie games that have become increasingly popular in recent years. From a storytelling standpoint I'd say TOR is fairly traditionall, but there are many mechanical elements that are definitely inspired by more unorthodox games. Perhaps it's because its fresh in my mind but I can see a lot of Mouse Guard in TOR. It doesn't have the strict storytelling structure that MG has (although there's a nod towards it) but there are many mechanical and general conceptual similarites between the two.

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.

Basic Mechanics
Speaking of rolls, what kind of mechanics are we talking about here? Well, the basic resolution mechanic is a dice pool; roll a special D12 (the Feat die) plus a number of D6 (the Success dice) corresponding to your skill rating, add them up and try to beat a set Target Number (TN) which is usually 14. However there are some added functions to this mechanism. First off there's a Gandalf rune and an Eye of Sauron on the Feat die in place of 12 and 11 respectively. The rune signifies an automatic success and the Eye of Sauron counts as zero and is generally used to add some additional complications if it happens to come up while you also fail the roll. The D6 dice are special as well; the numbers 1-3 are printed in an outline while 4-6 are solid black. There's also a tengwar rune on the number 6 face. The outlined numbers are used when your characters is Weary, you simply count them as zero if you happen to roll them when Weary. The tengwar rune is used to measure degrees of success, ranging from none (a narrow success) to two or more (an extraordinary success).

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.

Numerically speaking your character is made up of three Attributes, Body, Heart and Wits, and skills of which there are 18 divided into three categories. Your attributes range from 2 to 7 while your skills range from zero to 6. Your skill rating determines how many Success dice you get to roll besides the Feat die and your attributes can then be added to this total with a Hope point. Another little twist here is the Favoured mechanism; if the skill you're using is Favoured (marked by underlining it) you get to used the Favoured rating of the relevant Attribute, which will be 1-3 point higher than the base Attribute.

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.

Combat
There's also a fairly different take on combat as well. You start by choosing what Stance your character is in, ranging from Forward to Rearward. The further forward you are the easier it is to hit your enemy but it's also easier for them to hit you. Rearward is a bit of a special case since you can only choose that stance as long as you have two companions in close combat stance (they're basically protecting you), and you can only use and be hit by ranged weapons. This is somewhat of an abstraction but still allows for a lot of tactical decisions; general risk versus reward and more specific tactics in who should be protected in Rearward stance (the injured Beorning, or the Elf who's skilled with a bow?!).

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!

Journeys
One of the systems in the game that certainly screams Tolkien is the way travelling is handled. It's not simply about getting from point A to point B but everything that happens in between and how it affects the heroes. When the players start planning their journey they do so using one of the large, beautifully illustrated maps that come in the set and when they've decided on their rout the Loremaster checks it on his map that is the same, except it's divided into hexes and areas are colour coded, showing how difficult they are to traverse. He makes some calculations depending on where the heroes will travel, what season it is and their means of transport. The result is how many days it will take and how many tests the characters will have to make to try and resist stuff like getting fatigued or receiving Shadow points. Most likely he will keep these numbers secret from the players though. You can see both maps in the nearby picture, the left one is the player map and the right the Loremaster's map.

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.

Corruption
There are also rules for how the corrupting influence of the Great Shadow affects the characters. When travelling through Shadow regions or experiencing something nasty you risk getting Shadow points and when your Hope becomes lower than your Shadow point total you become Miserable. In this state you are susceptible to Bouts of Madness which can result in permanent Flaws being added to your characters. What kind of Flaw depends on what your Calling is; a Treasue Hunter will get more and more greedy etc. If you aqcuire more than five of these Flaws your characters is for all purposes lost to the Shadow - basically they're driven mad. So remember to keep your Hope up!

The Rest
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.

My Thoughts
Here we are then. What's my overall thoughts on the game (and remember I've only read the books, no actual play)? Well, to be honest I'm pretty bloody impressed! You rarely see a game system that so well integrates with the theme. And when that theme has such gravitas and is as well known and loved it's even more rare! As I mentioned in the beginning Francesco Nepitello knows Tolkien, he gets Tolkien and it really shows. Pretty much everything in the system feels right for the setting. It simply feels Tolkien. That's a very fuzzy kind of statement but once you sit down with the book and read it you'll understand what I mean.

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.

12 kommentarer :

  1. Just wanted to drop by and say that without your review of The One Ring, I would have never bought this game. That and a good price on Amazon ;)

    I found the game very interesting when I first read about it, but always thought Middle-Earth was something that I could emulate with other systems if I ever wanted to take my players there. And after the first Hobbit film there certainly was interest with the players for some adventuring in Middle-Earth.

    I actually bought The Heart of the Wild first as I intended to use it as a "setting book" for Torchbearer or maybe RuneQuest 6. Then I started reading reviews again and I though: "Why go halfway?" Torchbearer and RuneQuest really have their own feel to them. RuneQuest always had that historical, mythic Rome or Greece, feel and heavy ties to Glorantha. These and the game quite heavy on bookkeeping. Torchbearer on the other hand has much more dirty, desperate and Nordic feel to it. Even if some of the character class nature defining questions play on Tolkien stereotypes.

    So if Sophisticated Games And Cubicle7 had succeeded in creating a roleplaying game that reflected the source material better than any attempt before them, why not give it a try? My core set is still on its way and I don't think I'll received it by Christmas, but I bought the PDFs as well. I haven't read all of the Adventure's and Loremaster's Guides, but from what I've read I must say that your review is spot on. The One Ring is most likely the best roleplaying game based on J.R.R. Tolkien's works. The feel of the world is spot on for Middle-Earth and the game has some nice mechanics, which you summed up really nice on your review.

    I'll post some more comments later and hopefully get a game going after the Christmas holidays.

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    1. Cool! I still haven't played it (but might get to in January or so) but I've kept reading and re-reading it on and off. Just got the Heart of the Wild last month and it retains the great quality of the products put out so far.

      Tricky to really get that Tolkien feeling right, but I feel Cubicle 7 has done it. Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts on it. :)

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  2. I am getting TOR for christmas and i was wondering if was eay to understand for first timers

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    1. Hi Justin! That's a great christmas gift! I don't think TOR would be difficult to understand for new roleplayers - the difficult part might be grasping the concept of roleplaying if you've never done it before.

      The rules are fairly straight forward, the trickiest ones probably being battles and perhaps travel (not tricky, but a few different things to keep in mind).

      Good luck! I think you'll have a blast!

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    2. As Martin said the rules aren't hard to understand and the writing is very friendly to new players. That is the roleplaying jargon is kept to a minimum and most of the things are spelled out in fairly good detail.

      The adventurer's (or player's) guide actually does very decent job in explaining what roleplaying is to new players. But you should bear in mind that this isn't a game where you can sit down with the books and a hour later be ready to play. The loremaster (person telling the story and running the game) needs to read both the books and it doesn't hurt for at least one of the players to have read the adventurer's guide.

      That being said the core books with the slip case, the maps and dice will make a very fine gift.

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  3. Well, Amazon exceeded itself this time. A timely delivery of one core set of The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild in Christmas postal traffic. Delivered today :)

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  4. I've been reading The Darkening of Mirkwood campaign book this weekend. Or PDF as the printed book is on pre-order and will be published in a few months time. If there ever was a justification or reason for The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild to exist, this campaign is it. The Darkening of Mirkwood is for TOR pretty much what The Great Pendragon Campaign is for Pendragon. It's that good.

    Normally I'm not really that fond of published adventures as quite often you can spin similar adventures yourself by reading a few novels or checking out other inspirational stuff like comics or video games. The Darkening of Mirkwood is one of those few adventure campaigns which define the core game as it plays on the system's strengths and stays true to the source material. The campaign itself open ended enough as it is based on yearly events. There's a fairly linear plot to the campaign, but the campaign structure doesn't railroad the players. So player characters can go side questing out side the campaign very easily, but its events are always present.

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    1. There's a good and very thorough review of The Darkening of Mirkwood on Geek Native. Worth your time :)

      http://www.geeknative.com/43591/shadow-light-review-darkening-mirkwood/

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    2. Read it last week and if I wasn't sold before I am now. Book preordered, just waiting for my PDF-link.

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  5. Cubicle 7 seems to updating The One Ring Core Set in the coming summer. Kind of bummed as I just bought it, but I can see why the revision is in order. I'm not that much of a fan of the slipcase approach, and I would like to see the new core set to be a proper boxed set for the game.

    http://www.cubicle7.co.uk/coming-next-for-the-one-ring/

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    1. Yeah, I saw that the other day. I don't really have much problem with the current edition, but I know a lot of people don't like how the books are split up. There have have also been some changes done to the travel rules so I guess this shouldn't come as a suprise.

      I'll probably pick it up when it hits the street.

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    2. Me neither really, I actually like the separate Adventurer's and Loremaster's books but I wish they'd been hardcovers. A lot of the things I wish were different with The One Ring are actually more to do with the design and production choices than with the actual rules.

      I'll keep the current edition as play copies if Cubicle 7's new Core Set seems worth getting.

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