Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Tommy's Take on The One Ring

Apparently the announcement of Adventures in Middle-Earth for D&D 5th edition sparked a run on The One Ring. I alllllmost bought Adventures in Middle-Earth because I love D&D 5e, but ultimately got The One Ring, which I've now ran two sessions of.

Ethics in Gaming Journalism Disclaimer: I got a PDF of this sometime back, and I honestly don't remember how. I think it was a New Year, New Game bundle. I did get a review copy of the original version that I never reviewed for silly reasons. Anyway, this review is based off of the hardcopy that I paid for, and the two sessions I've ran of it. Oh, and this review contains affiliate links to RPGNow. Making purchases via those links may provide me with a portion of the sales as store credit to RPGNow.

Just the Facts:

  • Available at RPGNow for about $30. The print version retails for $60, but is currently out of print.
  • Full color and hardcover, and a hefty 336 pages.
  • Uses its own game system, including custom dice that can be replaced with d6s and d12s. Specifically, the custom d6s have outlined (rather than filled in) 1-3, as well as a special symbol on the 6, and the d12 replaces the 11 with the Eye of Sauron and the 12 with Gandalf's Rune.
The One Ring was released in 2011 and was revised into this volume in 2014. Set five years after The Hobbit, in the Twilight of the Third Age and in the Wilderland, which encompasses The Mirkwood, The Misty Mountains, Laketown and The Lonely Mountain, though later books have expanded the reach further, including Rohan and Rivendell.

The system uses a die pool comprised of d6s and a d12 (the Success dice and the Feat die). The die pool is built using d6s equal to the relevant skill, plus the Feat die. Add the results all together and try to beat a target number. If you get a 6 and succeed, it becomes a Great Success. A second 6 makes it an Extraordinary Success. If you get the Eye of Sauron on the Feat die, it doesn't mean you failed, but it does mean something bad happened...while the Rune means it's an automatic success (and a 6 along with it makes it an Epic Feat). If you really need to succeed, you can spend Hope to push yourself further, gaining an Attribute bonus to your roll (with Body, Heart and Wits being your Attributes). If your skill is Favored, then you can gain a Favored Attribute Bonus instead, which will be 1-3 points higher than the regular bonus, depending on how you prioritized Attributes at character creation).

If you're lucky, you'll have a Trait that will let you pretty much get an automatic success on an action, get a roll when you normally wouldn't, or score an Advancement Point when an action you just performed fits the Trait.

Character creation involves picking a Culture (the core has Bardings, Beornings, Hobbits, Mirkwood Elves, Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain and Woodmen of the Wilderlands), a Background (the book provides six options for each Culture) and a Calling (Scholar, Slayer, Treasure Hunter, Wanderer and Warden). This gives you your base Attributes and Skills, a Cultural Blessing, a list from which you can pick two Traits, one more Trait (based on Calling), two Favored Skill Groups (also based on Calling) and your Shadow Weakness (how fighting The Shadow wears you down over time). Then you get 10 Experience Points to spend to further customize your character.

It's worth noting here that you track advancement with both Advancement Points - which are gained by going out and doing stuff, and Experience Points, which are gained by succeeding at your goals, completing quests and the like.

For instance, the two PCs in our game are a Dwarf of the Lonely Mountain Treasure Hunter whose Background is a Lesson in Revenge. The second PC is a Beorning Warden Errand Runner.

Characters are further defined by Valour and Wisdom, which in turn grants Rewards and Virtues. Rewards are tied with Valour, and you get a list of "generic" Rewards to choose from, such as Qualities that can be added to your gear, like raising the Damage rating of a weapon or the Parry bonus of a Shield. Cultural Rewards are more specific items such as Bardings gaining a Dalish Longbow, Hobbits gaining Lucky Armor or Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain donning a Helm of Awe, each of which provides its own unique bonus.

Virtues are similarly divided. Generic Virtues include Masteries, which let you boost your Hope rating, raising your favoured Attributes or gaining a new Favoured Skill. Culture Virtues are even neater, like Elves of Mirkwood having Elvish Dreams (which lets them recover Endurance while performing a repetitive activity and not necessarily resting), Woodmen of the Wilderland adopting a Hound of Mirkwood or Beornings being able to let their spirit slip loose in the form of a bear to travel at night. Plenty of options PCs can gain as they improve over time.

There are multiple status conditions that PCs must be concerned with as they adventure. If their Endurance score ever matches, or is lower than, their Fatigue score, they become Weary. This causes any rolls of 1-3 on Success dice to be 0s. If their Shadow score ever equals of passes their Hope score, they become Miserable, and then become susceptible to Bouts of Madness, as well as gaining permanent Flaws in line with their Shadow Weakness.

Most attacks whittle down Endurance, but PCs can become Wounded if they fail a Protection roll. A second Wound immediately knocks them unconscious, as does dropping to 0 Endurance. However, it takes dropping to 0 Endurance AND being Wounded to become Dying. If a PC is Wounded, then drops to 0 Endurance and gets Wounded with the same hit? It becomes a Killing Blow. Dropping to 0 Hope causes the PC to utterly retreat from the situation as they become Hopeless.

Combat is a bit abstract. Initiative is dictated based on how the encounter began, with PCs usually gaining the benefit of the doubt. Then PCs roll Battle to try to gain bonus dice to use in the fight (the rationale can be for any reason - maybe the Dwarf notices that the Orc has a bad overhand technique that leaves him vulnerable been swinging, or an Elf discovers that the trees match his cloak in such a way that he can slip into better positioning on the bandit trying to rob the company).  If anyone has a ranged weapon, they can take advantage with an Opening Volley.

From there, PCs pick a Stance, which determines how hard it is to both hit and be hit, and opens up an additional combat option. Forward Stance is the most aggressive and lets you intimidate opponents, Open Stance allows you to rally your comrades, giving them additional Endurance back. Defensive Stance allows you to take an attack for a comrade and Rearward Stance which is the only stance that allows ranged attacks.

Most attacks do Endurance damage, but if you roll your weapon's Edge number, then you may inflict a Wound (barring a Protection roll). Two Wounds pretty much puts the kibosh on anything, as does inflicting enough Endurance damage.

Encounters are every bit as important, as these rules are basically Social Combat, for situations in which its important to impress, convince or deceive a Loremaster Character. Like with combat, you get to roll for pre-encounter advantages (using Insight, this time), and you have to avoid making a number of bad rolls equal to the Tolerance of the Loremaster Character, based off of either Valour or Wisdom, as well as whether or not any characters have Standing, where they are from (Dwarves and Elves being a common factor, for instance), and so on. And some characters may react differently based on the skill used for the Encounter (King Thranduil is less likely to react well to someone trying to Awe him than someone using Courtesy, for instance).

The third major subsystem is Journeys. As with Encounters and Combat, you get to roll a skill (Lore) to gain bonus success dice, and then you have to set the company to fill four roles: Guide, Scout, Huntsman and Look Out Man. Since no character can fulfill multiple roles at once, it pretty much requires a company of at least four. As I'm currently running it for two players, they each have a companion NPC roleplayed by me, but they decide actions and roll dice for them. Then the course is plotted, calculating the number of days of travel (based on speed, distance and terrain). This determines how many Fatigue Tests are required, as well as how many (if any) Corruption Tests are required (as traveling through some places just wears on your sole). Rolls of the Eye of Sauron mean Something Bad happens, as a Hazard Episode occurs. This could mean things like the Guide having to roll to avoid taking the group in the wrong direction, a Look-Out missing a sinister creature lurking nearby or even more Corruption roles. You can use the Feat die for these rolls, or you can use cards from the Hobbit Tales game. (I've personally always used the Feat die.)

All of the above is rolled into the Adventuring Phase, in which adventure stuff happens. Trekking across the Mirkwood, fighting evil, gaining Treasure, that sort of thing. It's what you think of when you think of a normal RPG session. Once that's over, though, the game moves to the Fellowship Phase. This is where you spend Advancement and Experience Points, and where your group can choose to do all kinds of things that can impact both the characters and the world. Maybe you choose to petition Radaghast to become your patron. Sure, this means he might send you on a quest, but he might also have birds warning you when bandits approach. Maybe you want to spend Treasure to raise your Standing among your people. Maybe you need to consult esoteric sources to find out more about the mysterious force moving through the mountains. All the "off screen" stuff happens here, in a narration that sets the stage for the next eventual Adventuring Phase. It's worth noting here that the game assumes that heroes will only go out on 1 or 2 adventures a year, rather than a constant adventuring life. In fact, a mechanism is in place for your replacement character to receive bonus experience points upon your current character retiring or dying a heroic, sacrificial death...though this number is reduced if your previous character died a non-heroic death, or if they fell to Shadow.

The Loremaster section encourages you not to be bound by Tolkien's canon, relying upon the notion of unreliable narrators in the original works to provide freedom in your adventures, especially in this time period set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Loremaster Characters are rarely statted out at the level of PCs, instead getting a single Attribute Level to go along with the relevant skills to speed up play. Adversaries have Hate instead of Hope, and use Hate to fuel their special abilities in combat, like a creature with Hideous Toughness shrugging off Endurance loss from an attack, or a creature with Savage Assault expending Hate to make a second attack after getting a Great or Extraordinary Success on their first attack. The bestiary is largely what you would expect of a Middle-Earth game, featuring goblins and orcs, Spiders of Mirkwood, wolves and wargs, no less than four trolls, as well as werewolves and vampires.

A campaign framework for The Darkening of Mirkwood (covering about a 30 year stretch) is included, and you can buy a full campaign book that totally expands that out. There is still a good cross section of information about the region, though the Darkening of Mirkwood campaign book and The Heart of the Wild covers this entire section in pretty deep detail.

An adventure is included, meant to be suitable for a first adventure, set in Lake-Town. It features guest appearances from Gloin, Oin and Balin, It's largely a good, introductory adventure, showing off most of the major mechanics. The journey through Mirkwood in this adventure is particularly brutal, however, requiring Corruption rolls daily, which starting characters with Wisdom 2 are very likely to fail a few of and wind up racking up Shadow Points early.

Pregenerated characters of each culture are included, and it is worth mentioning that the index is very comprehensive.


  • There are a lot of moving parts in this game, and it's easy to miss stuff. From the pre-encounter rolls, to Hope and Fellowship points to getting used to the Stances. We have kinda trialed-and-errored our way through the first two sessions. It's not a dense, math-heavy system, but it's also not light and quick, but pretty much all the mechanics feel like they have a purpose. The Corruption Tests, Journeying, Encumbrance, Hope, Hate...it feels like a Tolkien game to me, and not just a generic fantasy RPG.
  • Speaking of Journeys and Fatigue...this is the first game in years that I haven't handwaved the Encumbrance rules, because Encumbrance makes sense when there is such a heavy focus on hiking across mountains and tromping through swamps. The little adjustments here are great, as your Spring gear and Winter gear, for instance, weigh differently because you prepare differently, and the burden of your equipment isn't a constant one, but one that grows as your journey becomes more daunting and arduous.
  • The Corruption system is harsh and unforgiving, especially at early levels, and it practically guarantees that no one is going to have an adventuring career and retire without SOME stain on their soul. This is Boromir losing his sense of perspective in the face of an overwhelming foe and trying to steal The One Ring, Thorin losing his mind at Bilbo not giving him the Arkenstone or even Frodo finding that he can't settle back at the Shire because of how he's changed. None of them were villains, but their adventures changed them forever (and led two of them to their deaths)...the Road to Hell is paved with good intentions, indeed.
  • The Virtues and Rewards are very cool and evocative. A Dwarf channeling their Shadow Points into their efforts gives them a reason to give in to their weakness a bit, or even having your axe become a fearsome item of legend in and of itself.
  • 18 skills is about the upper limit of what I will stomach for a skill list, but you have to love a game in which your character's ability to sing (Song) can be every bit as important as their knowledge of combat (Battle) or their ability to find food in the wild (Hunting).
  • That starting adventure is HARSH with the Corruption Tests, combat is a touch more complicated than necessary, and a few things are unclear (can Standing be gained through adventures and deeds? The rules don't seem like it can, but one of the adventures in another book provides just that option).
I'm not sure if I'm in love, but I can easily say I'm infatuated. A great game in which the mechanics feed the atmosphere in one of the finer marriages of mechanics and theme I've GMed, in my opinion. It's surprisingly harsh, at least at low levels (we've lost one NPC to the first adventure, and one PC has a permanent Shadow point, while the other PC is knocking on the door of one, two episodes in...and the second adventure would have ended in a TPK, but I rolled with the Epic Feat and interpreted it to get the heroes out of their predicament).

Two sessions in, and I'm glad I didn't go with Adventures in Middle-Earth. I'm sure Cubicle 7 did a fine job with the 5e version of Middle-Earth, but The One Ring feels very much like what I wanted from a Middle-Earth RPG. Hopefully we'll get to play it enough to work the kinks out, because I've enjoyed my first time playing in Tolkien's sandbox.