The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild
The Lord of the Rings was my introduction to fantasy literature, and it still holds a special place in my affections. This product is the latest RPG set in that world, written by Francesco Nepitello and published by Sophisticated Games and Cubicle 7 Entertainment. It consists of two maps, an Adventurer’s Book for players, and a Loremaster’s Book for the GM.
IN A NUTSHELL
An RPG set in Middle-Earth shortly after (and in the same geographical area as) the events depicted in The Hobbit, but before the start of The Lord of the Rings.
Character generation is effectively point-buy, driven by choices of culture and calling ("character class"). Equipment, economics and combat are de-emphasised, with the focus being on the storyline and its spiritual and physical impact.
Evokes the feeling of Middle Earth well; would suit Explorers and Socialisers better than Killers and Achievers. Good if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, but munchkins need not apply.
I turned to these first. The Adventurer’s Map is very much in the style of the endpapers of The Lord of the Rings itself, and covers the area from Rivendell to the Iron Hills east-west, and Mount Gundabad to Dol Goldur north-south, with a bit of extra space all around those. The players get a copy of this initally, representing what their characters know about the Wilderland, and they are expected to take notes or write on the map with what they find.
The Loremaster’s Map covers the same area, but is overlaid with a 10 mile hexgrid to regulate movement and has a number of places of mystery marked by runes. This region is about 600 x 500 miles, roughly the size of a European country.
The maps are included both in the main books at 8" by 10", and as separate files of twice those dimensions – useful if you have an A3 printer or a copy shop at hand. I’m not sure what size they are in the boxed set (I bought the PDF), but they’re legible printed at shrink-to-fit on A4 paper.
THE ADVENTURER’S BOOK
This is the players’ volume, and as you’d expect covers character creation, setting information, and basic game mechanics. As is common for works based on licensed properties, the text is peppered with quotations from the source material which illustrate the point at hand.
Part 1, Introduction (22 pages)
This explains what an RPG is, and provides an example of play, as is traditional for such chapters in RPGs. It also notes that this is the first of three planned sets, each of which covers roughly one-third of the timespan between the end of The Hobbit and the end of The Lord of the Rings, and each of which is set in a different area of Middle Earth. This set is geographically centred on Mirkwood, and covers 2946 TA to roughly 2970 TA. Intentionally or not, this ties it in nicely with the forthcoming hobbit movies.
Smaug is dead; the Necromancer has been driven from Dol Goldur; Aragorn has just turned 15; and the dwarves are back in Erebor. The Free Peoples for this set consist of Bardings, Beornings, dwarves of Erebor, elves of Mirkwood, hobbits of the Shire and woodmen of Wilderland – these are the available races and cultures for PCs.
Next comes a section on how to play; what the players and loremaster (GM) are expected to do, and the structure of the game, which is divided into adventuring phases and fellowship phases. The game makes more sense if you understand those to start with, so I’ll digress into them a little.
The campaign effectively begins with a fellowship phase. Each adventure then consists of an adventuring phase, followed by a fellowship phase. Most games have these, but TOR is explicit about it, possibly because it is aimed at beginning players and those recently weaned off videogames as well as more experienced gamers.
The adventuring phase is what most RPG players would understand as the scenario; your characters are presented with a series of problems by the GM, which they must overcome; during this phase the GM has narrative control. The fellowship phase covers the downtime after the mission; characters spend the experience points they gained while adventuring, and gain narrative control to explain what they are doing before the next adventure. A full adventure is expected to take 2-3 sessions of play to resolve, most of it in the adventuring phase, but with the last half-session covering the fellowship phase.
The book deconstructs The Hobbit to illustrate these; for example, the first segment of the story has an adventuring phase taking the hobbit and the dwarves from Hobbiton to Rivendell, followed by a fellowship phase resting up in Rivendell.
The chapter then moves into detailed explanations of the character sheet and the dice, including the basic game mechanic (roll a bunch of dice and compare the total to a target number – see below for details). This is another game which, like WFRP3, uses special dice; 6d6 and 1d12, with the 6 on the d6 and the 11 and 12 on the d12 having special meanings. Unlike WFRP3, TOR explains them well enough that you can substitute the d6 and d12 you undoubtedly have lying around.
Part 2, Characters (54 pages)
As you’d expect, this is the biggest chapter. To create a character, the player first selects his native culture (dwarf, elf, hobbit, or one of several different types of men); each culture bestows a blessing on its children. Cultures are described in terms of where they are based, how they look, their standard of living, why their people might go adventuring, what they think of other cultures, and the likely age of adventurers from that culture. Each culture also grants its scions skill levels in a number of skills, including weapon skills; one or more of these may be selected as "favoured".
The player next chooses two specialities, a background (which can be diced for if desired), another favoured skill, and two distinctive features. The background describes the character’s formative experiences before becoming an adventurer, and the features are things which would be advantages/edges or disadvantages/hindrances in other games – mainly there to flesh out the roleplaying aspects of the character.
Thirdly, the player chooses favoured attributes, a calling and favoured skills, spends any previous experience to buy more skills, and generates scores for Endurance, Hope, Valour and Wisdom – this leads to a final choice, that of a starting reward or virtue. The calling would be a character class or archetype in most games; it defines what skills your character will be best at (including two more favoured skills), a trait (feat/edge) that gives him special capabilities, and a weakness which the forces of evil can exploit.
Favoured attributes are Body, Heart and Wits, much as in the Tri-Stat system. The character’s background sets the basic scores for these; the player can now increase one of them by 3, another one by 2, and the third by one point. Endurance and Hope are set by the PC’s culture and Heart.
Finally, the player records starting equipment and fatigue. All characters are assumed to have travelling gear, one weapon for each weapon skill known at level 1+, one suit of armour, one shield, and one piece of headgear. I welcome this approach, because I feel that time spent buying gear is time wasted, which could have been spent on actual play; but Your Mileage May Vary. There are two or three choices for armour, shields, axes, swords and so on – equipment is of Dark Ages types (no plate armour, for instance) and what you use is more about your home culture than your money pouch.
The game has an interesting approach to character wealth and resources; your culture determines your economic status, and thus what you can afford to buy. Status moves from Poor, to Frugal, and then to Martial, Prosperous and Rich. A martial status, for example, means you live in an austere manner, can pay for simple accommodation and meals at need, and can borrow a mount from someone if in your home territory. A prosperous character could buy a round of ales at the tavern without worrying about it, but a frugal one would have trouble doing so.
Linguistics interests me more than my players, but we are both catered for; everyone speaks Westron, the Common Tongue, and depending on their culture they may speak other languages too.
As in WFRP3, but to a lesser extent, the adventuring party is in a sense a character too. The players decide where their fellowship was formed, and each of them picks one other character as their focus (as Sam was focussed on Frodo, say). The fellowship has one Fellowship Point per member; these can be spent by members to recover Hope. A fellowship focus lets your character recover Hope without spending fellowship points, but leaves him vulnerable to gaining Shadow (see later) if his focus is injured or slain.
Part 3, Fundamental Characteristics (35 pages)
This explains the care and feeding of attributes and skills. When using a favoured skill, the character may add the relevant attribute to his dice score.
Among the attributes, which by now range from 1-12, Body helps combat, Heart helps resist fear and corruption, and Wits drives parrying and initiative. These give the general impression of the character.
There are 18 skills divided up by attribute, covering combat, interpersonal, and crafting prowess. Traits cover the same ground as D&D 3E feats; each allows you an advantage (usually automatic success at a task) under certain circumstances. Distinctive features define the character’s personality and appearance – you may be Grim, for example, or Curious.
Endurance is your character’s resistance to physical stress; when he is hurt, he loses Endurance, and when his Endurance total is less than or equal to the Encumbrance of his normal equipment load, he becomes Weary, meaning that d6 rolls of 1-3 no longer count towards success. If Endurance reaches zero, the character collapses. Endurance is replenished by rest and food.
Hope is resistance to mental stress, and Shadow (initially zero) and measures the impact of despair and doubt on the character. When a character’s Hope is less than or equal to his Shadow, he becomes Miserable. If Hope is reduced to zero, the character is hopeless and will flee from danger or distress. Hope is recovered by spending fellowship points, or at the end of a game session if the character’s focus is still healthy – if the focus is hurt or killed, the character gains Shadow. I like this rule; it reflects the focus of the source material on the impact of mental stress as well as physical wounds.
Treasure and standing are also treated in this chapter. Treasure hoards are given a rating from 1 to 1,000; a rating of 2, for instance, lets you live at Rich status for a month, while one of 500 is enough for you to live at a Prosperous status for the rest of your life. Each point of treasure increases your Encumbrance by one.
Standing ranges from 0 to 6 and represents how well you are thought of in your home culture – essentially, your reputation and status as a person. 0 is a homeless vagrant, 6 is a king.
Part 4, Character Development (28 pages)
This is about character improvement, as you might guess. There are several different types of advancement, each tracked differently.
Characters get one experience point per session, plus an extra one for substantial progress towards their current goal. These are used to improve Wisdom, Valour or weapon skills. Initially, the player set either Wisdom or Valour to a score of 2, and the other one to a score of 1. Starting at a score of 2, each time Wisdom or Valour is increased, the character receives a boon; this means he starts with one boon, which I forgot to mention above.
Boons may be virtues, such as Confidence, which grants +2 Hope, or rewards, such as Cunning Make, which reduces the encumbrance of an item. Some are available to everyone, but most are dependent on the character’s culture – only a Beorning can be a Brother to Bears, for example, which increases Endurance and grants superior senses at night. Virtues are improvements to the character himself, while rewards are improvements to his equipment.
Each time a character uses a skill in a distinctive and memorable manner, whether he succeeds or fails, he gains an advancement point. These are used to increase skill levels in the fellowship phase of a scenario.
Part 5, Adventuring Mechanics (20 pages)
Before I start on mechanics, you need to know that it matters whether a character is fit and healthy, Miserable or Weary, as this affects the outcome.
The basic mechanic is that when a character tries to do something, the GM tells him a target number (ranging from 10 to 20)and what skills are relevant; the player then rolls as many d6 ("success dice") as his level in that skill, and the d12 (the "feat die") – note that since you always roll a feat die, you can always succeed, even if unskilled; it’s just not very likely. NPC opponents do likewise, but read some results differently than PCs or their allies.
A score of 12 on the d12 (the G rune on the special die) is the best possible result for the PCs. It is an automatic success for a PC, and the lowest possible result (counting as 0) for their adversaries. An 11 (the Eye of Sauron on the special die) is the worst possible result for PCs (counting as 0), and the best possible result for adversaries (automatic success). A Miserable character who rolls an 11 temporarily loses control due to a bout of madness.
The game’s special d6 show the numbers 1-3 in outline; these count as zero if the character is Weary, regardless of the number rolled. Natural scores of 6 on any die, marked with an elven symbol on the special dice, define degrees of success; assuming the total score is enough to succeed, a single 6 indicates a great success, and two or more indicate an exceptional and memorable success.
Long distance travel between scenarios is handled in an abstract way. The players say where they want to go to, and what role each of their fellowship occupies – look-out, scout, guide etc.; the GM tells them how long it will take and how many fatigue tests they must make on the way. A roll of 11 on the feat die during any test indicates some sort of hazardous event, which requires a skill test from the character occupying the relevant role; but NPC encounters are planned in advance by the GM – note that in this game, meeting a potentially friendly NPC is an encounter, but meeting hostile monsters is a hazard.
In combat, each character declares a stance, which may be Forward, Open, Defensive or Rearward. A character can only choose a Rearward stance, which is required for missile fire, if at least two others have chosen something else. The stance determines the target number both for the character’s attacks and those of his foes, and the initiative sequence. This is a nice mechanic; if you choose Forward, you hit more often and go first, but you are easier to hit as well.
Rolls to hit are weapon skill checks. A hit in combat inflicts damage equal to the weapon’s damage number, plus the character’s Body score if he got an outstanding success; the target rolls as many d6 as his armour’s protection rating, plus a feat die, and if the total equals or exceeds the incoming damage, the armour absorbs it. Notice this means that armour is less effective when you are Weary.
Part 6, Fellowship Phase (18 pages)
The default assumption of the game is that a fellowship (party or band of adventurers) goes on one adventure per year, which takes an entire season to execute; and then rests up until the end of the year. (Obviously, one is free to adjust this as one sees fit; a fellowship phase might be only a few days.) Characters may pass the fellowship phase at home, or in a temporary sanctuary; they need not all be together. There is a fellowship phase at the end of each year, which may or may not be the same as the one at the end of the last adventure.
In this phase, the character may spend experience points to improve his Wisdom, Valour or weapon skills. It is cheaper to improve lower levels of any of those. He may also choose one undertaking – meet a patron, gain a new distinctive feature (such as fine clothing), attempt to reduce his Shadow rating through skill checks, raise his standard of living (say, from Poor to Frugal) or Standing by spending treasure, or turn a newly-discovered location into a sanctuary for future fellowship phases.
In a sanctuary, it is easier to recover from the effects of the Shadow, but if you end the year there, you lose one level of Standing unless you spend treasure to retain it.
Appendices and Index (17 pages)
Here we find pregenerated characters, one for each culture; a blank character sheet, and the index. The pregens are a necessity in my opinion; character generation is requires a number of decisions informed by a fairly detailed understanding of the setting, so anyone looking to just jump in and play needs them.
THE LOREMASTER’s BOOK
In general, the Loremaster’s Book looks again at the rules of the Adventurer’s Book, from the GM’s viewpoint. As with the players’ book, it seems written to cater for the new GM more than the experienced one, which is no bad thing, but does mean I tended to skip through it at a fair pace, thinking (perhaps wrongly) that I knew a lot of the content already.
Part 1, the Role of the Loremaster (3 pages)
This is your standard how-to-be-a-GM explanation. It stresses the need for the GM to know the setting well, preferably better than all the players; I’d struggle with that personally, as my players include a number very well versed in Tolkien’s works. It also emphasises the opportunities to fill in the gaps in Tolkien’s narratives, noting that the Wilderland is introduced in The Hobbit, but gets almost no attention after that.
Part 2, Game Mechanics
This chapter opens with further advice for the GM on how to run the adventuring phase of a scenario, including preparation, location and season, NPCs and plot. The intent is that small events tie together to reveal a greater story arc.
Second, task resolution, including the usual topics that need to be tackled for this; selecting skills and target numbers (the default is 14), opposed and cooperative tasks, and so on.
Third, NPCs ("loremaster characters"). These are treated in a largely narrative way; most interactions are resolved with an old school approach, using conversation and the GM’s knowledge of the character and setting. The GM is encouraged to use the traits and distinctive features from the Adventurer’s Book to create off-the-cuff NPCs, only advancing them to greater levels of detail when necessary. The attributes and skills for an NPC, if and when they become important, are rated depending on what would be reasonable for the character’s role in the encounter. (This resonated with me as it’s pretty much how I run NPCs.)
Then we flip back to tests, which jarred me a little as the NPC section seems to have been inserted partway through the discussion of task resolution. No matter.
Since awarding experience has already been covered in the Adventurer’s Book and earlier in the chapter, we now look at awarding advancement points. Again this isn’t the sequence I would have written things in, but that’s just my preference for grouping all types of advancement together showing through.
Journeys are next. This expands on the explanation given in the Adventurer’s Book, explaining how to calculate the length and time of a journey – time taken depends on terrain as well as distance. This isn’t something I’d want to do on the fly, so I’d suggest that during the previous fellowship phase the players tell the GM where they’re heading next, or that he tells them instead, so the calculations can be done in down time. The GM’s map is colour-coded to show terrain difficulty, which the players’ one is not. The frequency of fatigue tests for long distance travel turns out to depend on the season; travel in winter and you’ll be taking one every three days, for instance.
Hazards are also covered in more detail, although at an abstract level; the GM is expected to tailor them to the adventure. To recap, a hazard is encountered when the players fail their fatigue test and roll an 11 on the feat die. The GM now rolls another feat die to identify which role (scout, guide etc.) the hazard relates to, with a second 11 meaning any role that isn’t covered. If the relevant role isn’t covered, somebody can spend a point of Hope to attempt the test. Monsters Roused – the classic RPG wilderness encounter – happens if a hazard focussed on the Look-Out appears, and then he fails his Awareness check. This is a prime candidate for incorporation into my current games.
The rules also cover what else characters can reasonably attempt while travelling, and some common routes, e.g. Erebor to Beorn’s House (400 miles, 30 days, 5-9 fatigue tests depending on the time of year); each of these is presented with a zoomed-in section of the GM’s map with the route marked on it – nice touch.
Combat is a part of most RPGs, and TOR is no exception. However, this is not a game for the hack-and-slash crowd, not that I have anything against them; combat in TOR is to be avoided, and is expected to happen roughly once every other session. The rules for combat are in the Adventurer’s Book, so this segment is more about when and why the GM would trigger a combat than how it is resolved – note the assumed default situation is heroes forced into combat en route to achieving one of their goals, not seek-and-destroy missions against monsters. Here we learn that the Rearward stance isn’t available if the party is outnumbered more than two to one; what skills to use when setting or avoiding an ambush; how many foes can engage a hero and vice versa. There is also an extended combat example to show the system in play, very useful.
Other sources of injury such as falling are covered here too – while not combat per se, they go naturally with the injury rules, so this makes sense.
As mentioned earlier, random monsters are treated as journey hazards, while encounters offer at least the possibility of support from friendly NPCs. The GM’s view of encounters includes the concept of tolerance, which is how many failed attempts at persuasion the PCs can make before being ejected from the NPC’s presence, possibly under guard. The tolerance of an NPC is either the best Valour or the best Wisdom in the party, depending on whether their culture favours martial prowess or sound judgement. If a member of the party is from the local culture, his Standing is added to the basic tolerance. Some cultures (e.g. elves and dwarves) don’t play nicely together, and in this case tolerance is reduced.
Part 3, the Shadow
Here we find the rules for corruption and the bestiary.
Adventurers garner Shadow points, discussed earlier, through bad experiences, dishonourable deeds, and spending time in places where the Shadow has taken root. A character whose Shadow points equal or exceed his Hope becomes Miserable, and the player relinquishes control to the GM – this section offers the GM options for the character’s behaviour then, depending on circumstances. Each such bout of madness causes the PC to develop a flaw; you’ll recall that in generation each PC wound up with a Shadow weakness, and each is associated with four flaws which develop in sequence. (For example, if your PC is troubled by the Lure of Secrets, he will become first haughty, then scornful, then scheming, and finally treacherous.) The GM can invoke flaws whenever it seems reasonable to make life harder for the PC. The fifth flaw removes the character from play, permanently; elves go over the sea to the west, others go mad and either kill themselves or have to be killed.
Monsters are rated in much the same way as characters, although their skills are broader and less detailed; they also have special abilities such as Fear of Fire or Commanding Voice. Many of these work to modify the monster’s Hate score, which is their equivalent of Hope; when a monster runs out of Hate, it flees from combat. Adventurers may, for example, intimidate the monsters, which lowers their Hate level.
The monsters in the chapter include several flavours of orcs, giant spiders, trolls, giant bats, and wolves, each with their characteristic attitudes, statistics, attacks and defences.
It’s a nice touch, and entirely in keeping with the setting, that monsters are driven by Hate, and heroes by Hope.
Part 4, the Campaign
This chapter begins by skipping through the setting of Middle Earth, with a focus on the time and place of this game. The timeline describes Old Lore (1050-2931 TA), ancient history which the PCs may uncover; Recent Past (2941-2945 TA), which is common knowledge for them; and Gathering Shadows (2946-2951 TA), current and possible future events which they might or might not affect.
After history, the gazetteer; descriptions of the current state of play in the Wilderland – what each nation is like, who’s in charge, and what they’ve done to the place since the Battle of Five Armies.
Next, campaign outlines. The game assumes that the GM has some specific stories to tell, and a specific leitmotif in mind, which he will use to craft the campaign. The section asks some questions intended to bring these into focus, and presents an example structure, complete with goals, location, focus, NPCs, supplementary encounters and chronology.
The heroic heritage rules assume that when a PC dies or retires, a new PC representing a younger friend or relative takes up the burden. This character begins with extra experience, representing the lessons his or her mentor was able to pass on. Heroes who retire, or die heroically, pass on more experience points than those who die less meaningful deaths or succumb to the Shadow.
(The suggested rate of progress for TOR is 4-6 game sessions per year of game time, with surviving characters retiring after about 15 years, call it 75 sessions. For a group which plays weekly, that would be about two years of real time.)
Part 5, Introductory Adventure – the Marsh Bell
As ever, I’ll draw a veil over much of this. It’s a rescue mission with three adventuring components, starting from Esgaroth and showcasing the interpersonal, travel and combat aspects of the game in turn. Like most such scenarios, it’s intended to ease the GM and players into the new rules; there’s an implicit assumption that everyone has read The Hobbit, which is probably true.
Middle Earth, and thus this game, is an exercise in a limited palette by (say) D&D standards; most characters are human male fighters, with the occasional rare elf, dwarf, thief, warrior woman or wizard, and no clerics. Differentiation between warriors is down to their culture more than anything else. Likewise, monsters are limited to goblins, orcs, spiders, bats, wolves, and non-regenerating trolls.
The game has some nifty mechanics for gear, upkeep, travel and physical and mental stress on the characters. In recent years I’ve become more resistant to learning new rules systems, and was quite prepared to dislike the rules of TOR heartily, but I find they’ve won me over. If I were to run a Middle Earth game in future, I could see myself using the rules as well as the setting, especially since a number of my players are hardcore LOTR fans. (How hardcore? One of them used it as her thesis topic at university and lectures on it internationally to this day.)
The artwork is very nice throughout, with especially evocative covers, although I don’t like the elves’ trademark pointy hats. I have the PDF version (my usual choice for evaluating a game – hard copy comes later, if it inspires me), and there is no printer-friendly version of the text, which would be an issue if I printed it out rather than buying the books.
Overall: This game doesn’t suit my current group of players, largely because low humour and berserk violence are out of place; but if it did suit them, I would run it, and I will absorb some of the mechanics into my current campaigns.
Ben’ fatto, Francesco, complimenti.