Saturday, 24 January 2015

Review of Rivendell for The One Ring

Saturday, January 24, 2015

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Alright, enough with all the mechas and power armoured anime dudes! Let's get back to the Season of the Ring and the the first review of a The One Ring book, namely the just released Rivendell by Cubicle 7!

Rivendell is a new hardback sourcebook for The One Ring that weighs in at 144 pages and it marks the series first foray outside of the original setting of Mirkwood and its surroundings that is the default adventuring area for the core book and the supplements released so far. Originally the plan was to release three core books, each focusing on different geographical areas of Middle-Earth, but this idea was later abandoned in favour of releasing sourcebooks like this one to fill in the blanks and provide extra cultures fitting the setting.

Although the original core book for the game was released back in 2011 the release schedule since has been rather slow and somewhat erratic. Most of this has apparently been the fault of the Tolkien estate who need to check that everything looks ok to them and they can at times be a little slow and other times request changes to be made further prolonging the process. I don't fault Cubicle 7 at all in this regard, but can understand players who felt frustrated during the first couple of years. Now however, it seems like things are picking up a little and with the release of the Revised rulebook it feels like the game has got into it's second breath!

I'll take the time to make a mild SPOILER warning here. Although I'll talk mostly in generics it might be wise to avoid this review if you are a player in a The One Ring campaign and want to remain completely in the dark of what is to come.

Rivendell is of course of extra interest to anyone who has wanted to explore the world beyond Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains and it does not disappoint in this regard. At the moment I only have access to the PDF of the book so can't really comment on its physical appearance, but it's hardback and I'm guessing it's similar to either The Heart of the Wild or The Darkening of Mirkwood (they're slighly different in that Darkening is matte while Heard it gloss). From what I can tell there are no loose maps included with the book, although you get them as separate files with the PDF. I imagine they will be part of the upcoming Journeys and Maps supplement. When I get my hands on the actual book, I'll update this section with more details on its physical appearance. By now I don't think I need to mention that the book is absolutely beautiful with spectacular and immersive art by Jon Hodgson, Jan Pospíšil and Jeremy McHugh. I mean, it goes without saying, The One Ring line of books is famous for their art and graphic design! Taking a quick look at the contents we have: Introduction, Imladris, A History of Eriador, The Regions of Eastern Eriador, New Monsters, Magical Treasure, The Eye of Mordor, Heroic Culturs and Appendices. So let's dig deeper and see what each chapter brings to the game!

The Introduction is, well... an introduction, but it also explains that Rivendells it the companion book to the upcoming Ruins of the North, much like The Heart of the Wild is the companion book to The Darkening of Mirkwood. That being said, I suspect Ruins of the North will be more similar to the adventure compilation/mini-campaign Tales from Wilderland that the epic play experience that is The Darkening of Mirkwood. It is also explained that the book is written with the year being some time after 2951 and possibly as late as 2077 (the default ending year of the The Darkeing of Mirkwood campaign), however it is also stated that things change slowly in Eriador and if you want to set your campaign earlier few things would need adjusting.

Imladris, Rivendell, The Last Homely House.
The chapter on Imladris is 15 pages of Rivendell background and information, including its history, a map with just the right amount of detail and a number of key characters who reside there. I have never been all that interested in Rivendell myself (unlike many others) as it has somehow felt almost "too good" a place to be in. I want my adventures to be muddy and dirty! Haha! Even so I found myself re-evaluating my position on the Last Homely House and am now actually looking forward to having my players find and explore it (some time in the far future once we're "done" with Mirkwood). Good chapter with just the right amount of information to craft good story hooks and get ideas, but not being overburdened with minutia like what exactly each room is used for and looks like.

The next chapter, A History of Eridador, is quite short at only six pages, but you should be aware that a lof of the history has also been baked into the gazeteer in the next chapter. You get a rundown of the rise and fall of both Arnor and Angmar, how the rangers formed and how they are pretty much keeping the entire region safe from orcs, troll, wargs and other even worse servants of the Shadow! While not a long chapter it provides a solid overview of the events which should be easy to relay to the players when required.

Now comes the real meat and potatoes of the book in the form of The Regions of Eastern Eriador. That's right eastern Eriador! You see, Cubicle 7 has plans for the western parts (which apparently includes the town of Bree and its immediate surroundings which are not covered in this book) and the Rivendell book covers the region from the Misty Moutains in the east to the Barrow Downs in the west. Just like The Heart of the Wild this chapter is a kind of gazeeter of the entire region with each section zooming in on a particular area (ie. Angmar, Mount Gram, Trollshaws, South Downs, Eregion etc). Each area gets between three and five pages devoted to it and after a general overview we get a subsection on wildlife, inhabitants, notable characters and notable locations as well as some special rules like new Fellowship Undertakings here and there. These chapters are pure gold for an industrious Loremaster as each of them could easily be spun into several sessions worth of adventuring! Generally each region has around three obvious hooks, but the general background certainly provides inspiration for creating more.

One thing this chapter really succeeds with is instilling a sense of how the Companions are moving through the ruins of an ancient and great kingdom. Not only through the snippets of history inserted throughout the text but also when talking about the ruins of towers, forts, statues and roads that litter this part of Middle-Earth. While a Ranger or Elf might know about most of these I would love to have a Company totally ignorant of the history of the region to kind of slowly piece everything together.

The 18 page chapter on New Monsters starts with a section about Powerful Adversaries which describes how to grant some of the new, powerful special abilities to existing monsters to bring their threat level up. It's also mentioned that some of these abilities already exist on a number of the new monsters of Eriador. Again, it is half-assumed that the group who has played enough to make their way across the Misty Mountains to Rivendell will need some tougher opposition to go up against. That is not to say that all the new monsters are super deadly, there are certainly normal level enemies in this chapter as well. Provided are both stats for some of the named monsters and adversaries that is mentioned in the previous chapter, like Bloodstump the Hunter, as well as generic creatures like Goblins of Carn Dûm and Hill-men of Rhudaur. Fitting the lost realm of Arnor, there's also an extended sub-chapter on the undead which lists a number of different variants as well as several pages on The Lord of the Nazgûl, aka The Witch-King which makes for interesting reading. The authors are however quick to point out that:
"While precise definitions are generally something to be desired in a game, sometimes they provide an explanation to things that should remain inexplicable, robbing a legendary world of its mystery. Keeping a level of uncertainty and providing only glimpses of a world that defies understanding goes a long way in preserving a sense of wonder in those who take part in the game."
Which is very much in keeping with my own view on the matter - again showing that they have a firm grasp on what makes Tolkien Tolkien. Basically the New Monster chapter provides exactly what you'd think it would, with some extra additions here and there.

Of course, powerful adversaries calls for some more extravagant rewards and Rivendell provides in the form of a 19 page chapter focusing on Magical Treasure. For those of you sharpening your pitchforks, checking your supply of torches and frantically trying to find Cubicle 7 HQ on the map, don't worry - there are no +2 maces or swords of advanced fireballs. Again Francesco and his co-writers show their adept feel for the setting and how Middle-Earth works. Mechanically speaking the main new addition is that of Hoards. A Hoard is not simply some regular treasure to be used up by the Companions but also have the chance of containing Magical Treasure. In Rivendell and every forthcoming TOR release the Treasure rating is expressed as a number plus zero to three asterisks to show if it's a Hoard with potential magical items in it. For each asterisk you can roll to try and find something special and you succeed on the Will of the West or the Eye of Sauron (the latter, with complications, naturally) and you can then roll further dice, based on the number of unspent experience points you have, to see exactly what you have found. If it turns out to be a Precious Object, Wondrous Artefact or some Famous Weapon or Armour (the four categories presented) you need to actually spend experience to get it.

This acts both to make magical treasure costly, to make it rare and to tie it specifically to the character that finds (and invests in) it. It's explicitly stated that these kinds of items aren't meant to be passed around at will or given to the character who could use it best (from a min-max perspective) but that it was meant to be found and carried by that very character: "After all, it was Bilbo who was meant to find the Ring, not Balin, Gandalf or Thorin." The items are also not meant to be random or made up on the spot, but rather prepared by the Loremaster before hand. Included in the book are sheets for making a Magical Treasure Index where you can compile a list of lost items that might be found in the area; their stats and bonuses as well as their individual history that might be revealed through a successful Lore test or a fitting Trait. I really like this idea as all the magical items featured in the books have a long and glorious history to them! And even if the exact details of an item is unknown (like Sting) you can still figure out the general history of it - where it probably was made and when. With the great and sad history of Arnor it certainly feels more likely to come across something out of the ordinary in Eriador rather than Mirkwood. Besides including instructions for how to create each of these objects and how many to incorporate in the campaign there are also rules for cursed items (remember that Eye of Sauron you might roll?) as well as a complete sample Magical Treasure Index for Loremasters who lacks the time to create their own.

Following this is a shorter chapter about The Eye of Mordor which is a new mechanic introduced in Rivendell to track how well the Company manage to avoid attracting the attention of the Enemy. The basic value to track is the Eye Awareness rating which moves up and down depending on the size of the Company, what kind of members it has and what it's doing. High Elves and Dúnedain attract more attention than men or, especially, hobbits. The starting Eye Awareness level is then continually modified during the Adventure Phase by rolling Eyes of Sauron, gaining Shadow or blatant use of magic. Of course the Loremaster could raise it further because of the actions taken by the players. When the Eye Awareness raises above a preset level (depending on their current location) - the Hunt threshold - the Company is considered Revealed, instead of Hidden. When this happens the Loremaster will introduce an especially dangerous event to inflict on the characters and then the Eye Awareness rating reset. Being revealed is not meant to trigger some artificial event like, "suddenly ten orcs appear and attack" but should rather be integrated with the current narrative and should generally be used to make the situation worse - if the characters are in dire need of allies and seek for help in a nearby village they're regarded with suspicion and hostility, the skies that seemed to clear up suddenly turn dark and the Companions are drenched in a downpour far out in the wilds, an enemy etc. It is also suggested that you can use the cards from Hobbit Tales from Green Dragon Inn for inspiration if you have that game (which I will review soon).

While this system is completely optional and easily something you could organically create as you play I still quite like this mechanical approach to it as it will make the players think twice about certain courses of action. It's generally aimed at campaigns taking place later in the timeline that the core book, when the Enemy is awake and actively searching, but I think it could easily be introduced in any time where keeping a low profile is of importance.

Finally we have the two new Heroic Cultures - the Rangers and the High Elves of Rivendell. From the start it is emphasized that these are not ordinary cultures like those we've seen so far for the game. Indeed the Rangers are all descendants of the Dúnedain and the High Elves lived long and seen much. Because of this they are intentionally made in ways that break the mold a bit and are on par with already experienced characters hailing from the Wilderlands. The authors also don't recommend more than one or maybe two of these powerful characters in the Company lest they unbalance the carefully wrought intention of having "regular people" step up and become heroes. I think both offer some very interesting roleplaying opportunities and they also have drawbacks to keep them somewhat in check.

Rangers have the Allegiance to the Dúnedain to keep in mind which makes them loners in the world of men, meaning that while they contribute normally to the Fellowship pool, but is not allowed to spend Fellowship points to recover lost Hope. Fellowship focus works as normal though. They have a really cool Cultural Blessing called Foresight of their Kindred which gives them a Trait called Foresighted that, that can be invoked like a normal Trait and will then be available for the entirety of that session, but then not again until the next Adventure Phase. So basically it works like a kind of danger sense that might tell you of what lurks ahead but that can only be used during one session per Adventure Phase, making it both powerful and tricky to use (do I invoke the trait now, or might there be an even more fitting occasion later?). They start with higher stats than a normal character but kind of makes up for it with the Allegiance to the Dúnedain and the fact that it costs more for them to raise their skills with experience points (reflecting that they're already quite experienced). The background packages are diverse and inspiring - supplying a variety of archetypes instead of the typical Strider-wannabe broody ranger that I think it's easy to fall into the habit of playing. My favourite is probably the Keeper of Earth and Spirit who has a kind of Radagast vibe and knows every plant and animal in Eriador and always have just the right thing to help with an ailment. Neat!

High Elves of Rivendell are especially marked by the Shadow and can't simply forget what has happened to them in the past. This means that they have an interesting way of handing Shadow points as they can't use the Heal Corruption undertaking in the Fellowship phase! Instead they can distance themselves from the past as an undertaking. You do this mechanically by marking one of your Common skills (preferably with a little Eye!) and for each point in that skill your Shadow score is lowered by two. The problem is when you later use that particular skill and happen to roll an Eye of Sauron - when this happens the test will fail automatically and you'll get a Shadow point. Basically you are overcome with sorrow of things lost and can't bear yourself to complete the task. I really like this mechanic as it makes High Elves very different from other Cultures and will make them slowly turn from the world in front of them (as more and more skills become marked) and think about leaving for the west. Their Cultural Blessing is called Agains the Unseen and lets them see spirits and wraiths that might be invisible to others, as well as not having to take tests to avoid Fear.

They also have a new trait called Enemy of Sauron which means that the servants of the Enemy instantly recognizes you for what you are and fear your presence. They will only attack if they have a proper advantage. Vice versa, it also means you have to take action when you see evidence of the work of the Enemy. The different backgrounds provide good inspiration for aspiring High Elves, with archetypes like the Elf-lord, Heir of Gondolin, Counsellor of Elrond and Vengeful Kin to choose from. Both cultures of course have some really neat Virtues and Rewards to choose from. The High Elves in particular can learn elven-smithing and craft enchanted weapons, which is pretty cool!

Finally we have the Appendices with the different sheets, the maps and the index. Nothing majorly exciting here. :)


As I mentioned above, I have never been all that interested in Rivendell as a place so even though I was looking forward to this book simply as one in a great series of The One Ring supplements, I would probably have preferred the Rohan book first, or maybe even more dabbling with spiders in in the dusk of Mirkwood. The area of Eriador also felt a lot less open than Mirkwood and more restricted in what you could do with it as a Loremaster. But, I'm happy to report that my fears and prejudices were entirely unfounded. In fact my perception of the region have changed a lot from reading the book and there's certainly a lot more to it than Rivendell and the Rangers. While I'm still partial to Mirkwood I've also become eager for my players to explore this land of spirits and lost realms.

The two new Heroic Cultures also manage to do a lot more than I had expected and I think a Ranger or a High Elf could be a very interesting addition to a company from the Wilderlands. They might demand a little more of the players though as at least a passing familiarity with the history of Eriador is almost required to really get the feel across right.

While the more mechanically focused chapters are good, and I'm especially impressed with how they handled the "problem" of magic weapons in a Tolkien setting, my favourite chapter is The Regions of Eastern Eriador. Just like The Heart of the Wild this gazeteer style chapter packs enough info to keep you busy for a good long while. If I were to nitpick I would have liked some zoomed in maps on certain of the places mentioned in this chapter. There are quite a few different ruins mentioned that would make for good mini maps to fold into the text. Then again, I have a feeling we'll see this kind of stuff in the Ruins of the North adventure supplement that's out next for The One ring.

I also feel it's slightly odd not to include Bree-land as part of eastern Eriador as it's as far or even farther east than the Lone-Lands and the Barrow Downs. While I can understand the desire to include it in the book covering the Shire and western Eriador (that way keeping a kind of thematic parallel with the part of the journey the hobbits made themselvs in LotR) it still feels strange to leave out the only proper village/town in the entire region, apart from Imladris. Not having actual fold out maps included with the book (please correct me if I'm wrong on this) is also a bit of a bummer.

Still, these small niggles aside I think this is an excellent addition to The One Ring and it's exciting to see the world open up for continued adventures in Middle-Earth!

2 kommentarer :

  1. I just bought this book, getting into Lord of the Rings more and more. This review is extremely well-written and did a great job of letting me make up my own mind about the book from your opinions. So thank you! :-)

    1. Thanks, Troy! Glad it helped you out and glad you're enjoying The One Ring. Although my TOR review project has stalled a bit for... reasons, I intende to review the entire line of books. Up next is probably Ruins of the North, the companion book to Rivendell.


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