Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Lord of the Rings RPG IV

When it comes to the licensed RPG, the hobby might worship at the release of the latest hot title, such as Evil Hat Games’ Dresden Files RPG and Margaret Weis Productions’ Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, but when their popularity is tempered, the hobby turns to its holy trinity. In over thirty years of the licensed RPG – the first being SPI’s Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game from 1980 – only three licensed properties have mattered to the hobby: The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Star Trek. Each of these has received the attention of three different RPGs, but in 2011, one of these properties had a fourth RPG based upon it released, and as 2012, it remains the only one of the three to have an RPG based on it in print. That fourth RPG to be based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth is Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s The One Ring: Adventures Over The Edge Of The Wild, a highly focused and contemporary design that in comparison to the previous RPGs – Ice Crown Enterprise’s Middle-Earth Role Playing and Lord of the Rings Adventure Gaming, and Decipher Inc.’s The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game, is a very radical RPG. Radical in terms of its focus and its design.

The setting for The One Ring RPG is the first of its foci. It opens in the year 2946 of the Third Age, exactly five years after the Battle of the Five Armies, and from this date, will advance year-by-year through the decades between the events described by Tolkien in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that will see a darkness reappear once again spread across the region it is played across. This geographical setting is its second focus, an area bound by Rivendell and the Misty Mountains to the West, the Lonely Mountain to the North, the Iron Hills to the East, and the haunt of the Necromancer, Dol Guldur to the South. The region between these points, an area known as the “Wilderland,” is dominated by the deep and dark woods of Mirkwood. This geographical area provides the game’s third focus, the cultures of the Free Folk of the North indigenous to the region or at least adjacent to it in the case of the Hobbit folk. The cultures in question are the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, the Elves of Mirkwood, and the Hobbits of the Shire as well as three cultures of men. These are the Bardings from Dale who follow Bard the Bowman who killed the dragon Smaug; the Beornings, the followers of Beorn the skin-changer who stand vigilant over mountain passes and river crossings; and the Woodmen of Wilderland, who have congregated under the protection of the wizard, Radagast the Brown. The fourth focus is the initial campaign drive; that of exploring and opening up a region of Middle Earth that has for centuries been cowed by the presence of the dragon Smaug, in the process maintaining the alliances forged with the Battle of the Five Armies.

In concentrating on this series of foci, what absolutely sets The One Ring RPG apart from all of The Lord of the Rings RPGs that have gone before it is that it is not another The Lord of the Rings RPG. It is still an RPG set in Middle Earth, but the events of The Lord of the Rings are yet to come and none of that tale’s signature characters appear in The One Ring RPG, nor do they receive any write-ups. Nor is it a traditional RPG, as the previous The Lord of the Rings RPGs were, in that it is not a “Class and Level” RPG and in that eschewing all of the traditional Classes particular to other fantasy RPGs, there is no magic using character type in The One Ring RPG. Some limited magic, again all of it culturally based, such as the “Spells of Secrecy” that enable the Dwarves to hide doors and objects, becomes available literally as the blessings of certain cultures later in the game. As described earlier, The One Ring RPG focuses upon certain character types and their cultures, so this also means that unlike the earlier The Lord of the Rings RPGs, it is not possible to play characters who are men of Dúnedain, Gondor, or Rohan. Some of these will be doubtless detailed in further boxed sets, of which there are another two to come.

Actually, The One Ring: Adventures Over The Edge Of The Wild does not come as a boxed set either. Rather it comes as a set of books, dice, and maps in a very sturdy slipcase. The books consist of the hundred-and-ninety-two page Adventurer’s Book, which covers character creation, core mechanics and combat, and the game’s two game phases – Adventuring and Fellowship; and the one-hundred-and-forty-four page Loremaster’s Book, which expands on the game’s mechanics and combat, and gives rules on handling journeys and the effect the Shadow, as well as a Wilderland bestiary, a guide to the Wilderland, and an introductory adventure. The two twenty-two-by-seventeen-inch maps depict the geographical setting for The One Ring RPG, one done in the style of Tolkien’s own maps – this for the players’ use, the other as a game map, marked out in hexes for working out travel times and distances for the Loremaster ’s use. Both books and maps are extensively illustrated, with an array of images that depict the peoples and landscapes of the Wilderland. What is clever about the slipcase for The One Ring RPG is that it is an inch or so taller than the books and maps, leaving a space into which a plastic tray slots. This tray holds the game’s customised The One Ring RPG Dice.

Character creation in The One Ring RPG starts with a player selecting a Heroic Culture and then one of the six Backgrounds for each Culture. Each Heroic Culture gives six Backgrounds, for example, the six for the Bardings of Dale give “By Hammer and Anvil,” “Wordweaver,” “Gifted Senses,” “Healing Hounds,” “Dragon-eyed,” and “A Patient Hunter.” From his Heroic Culture, a character gains a Standard of Living, suggested Callings, opinions of the Free Folk of the of the North, and a Cultural Blessing. For example, all Dwarves are Redoubtable and can withstand a greater encumbrance. A Heroic Cultural also gives a character his base skill levels, a choice of weapon skills, and a choice of Specialities, skill-like Traits like Fire-making or Boating, each a skill that the adventurer is proficient at and ordinarily need not roll any dice to succeed at. Each Background adds detail to the character as well as setting his Basic Attributes – Body, Heart, and Wits, sets a favoured skill, and gives several Distinctive Features to choose from, such as Energetic, Fierce, Hardened, Proud, Stern, Vengeful, Wary, and Wilful listed under the “A Life of Toil” Background for the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain. Again, each of these Distinctive Features is a Trait, but more a personality trait than a skill.

Traits are powerful factors within the game. They can allow an automatic action, such as the use of the Burglary Speciality to pick a lock, without the need to roll the dice; to deal with an Unforeseen Action, the example given being to interrupt the Loremaster ’s narration to gain a character with the “Cautious” Trait the chance to spot an escaping Goblin; and they will grant a character an Advancement Point if invoked as part of a successful skill use. In all cases, both the Loremaster and the other players have to agree on the Trait use, which hopefully will be enough with most groups to ensure that the use of Traits is not overdone or abused.

Next, a character chooses his Calling. Each of the five of these – Scholar, Slayer, Treasure Hunter, Wanderer, and Warden – explains why he left the comforts of home to explore the Wilderland. They also allow a character to select two Favoured skills, another Trait and a Shadow Weakness. The latter representing the worst aspects of his Calling and what he might fall prey to should the Shadow severely affect him. Lastly, a character determines the Favoured values of his attributes, spends some free points on skills, and sets the starting values for his Valour and his Wisdom. If he favours Valour, he will receive a physical Reward, such a Woodman’s Bearded Axe or another piece of equipment of a Cunning Make, whereas if he favours Wisdom, he gains a Cultural Blessing, such as a Hound of Mirkwood that he can train or Natural Watchfulness, which grants benefits when travelling. As a character gains experience and increases his Valour and Wisdom, he will gain the greater recognition of his peers and receive further Rewards and Cultural Blessings.
The result of creating a character does feel like an inhabitant of the North of Middle Earth. It is not a random process, but rather one of making a series of choices that define a character, through both his Culture and Background, and his Traits and Skills. There are eighteen common skills, plus weapon skills. The common skills include ones that you would expect of an RPG such as Craft, Healing, Lore, and Persuade, but others like Courtesy, Riddle, and Travel are very Tolkienesque. After all, how far would Bilbo Baggins got without the Riddle skill? Skills themselves are rated between one and six, with a value of two being regarded as average, but the skill system is predicated towards a skill of three against a target of fourteen, so with lower skills a character will have to push himself and so make use of his Hope.

Lastly, each has two important derived factors – Endurance and Hope. Endurance works as the equivalent of the character’s Hit Points, but it can also be reduced due to stress and exhaustion as well as engaging in combat. Should a character’s Endurance fall below his Fatigue threshold, then he is counted as being Weary and suffers accordingly for all actions until he rests. Hope works in a similar fashion, but represents his spiritual and mental strength rather than physical. It can be spent should a character want to exert himself with a particular skill. Should a character’s Hope fall below his Shadow rating, then he is deemed to be Miserable and could go temporarily mad! These are such simple mechanisms, but what they do is reflect the dangerous nature of leaving the safety of your home in Middle Earth to go adventuring and they focus on what makes roleplaying in Middle Earth different. Certainly there are moments in Tolkien’s tales when the characters are wearied or lose hope, and these factors nicely model this.

One character creation is done, and since this an RPG based on the works of Tolkien, it should be no surprise that the players create a Company, much as was done at the beginning of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This involves their deciding where their characters first met, and their each setting a Fellowship Focus that their character has with another member of the Company. The subject of this Fellowship Focus enables a character to recover Hope without spending Fellowship points, though if the subject is harmed or killed, he can Shadow points instead. The Company also serves as a shared source of Fellowship points that can each be spent to restore a character’s Hope. This neatly sets up a group dynamic and brings in another aspect of Tolkien’s fiction.

Our sample character is one Falco Hornblower, a Witty Gentleman from the Shire whose great-grandfather was thought to have got up to strange things and that was how he came by his treasure! Now he has decided to set out on the same path as Bilbo Baggins to see if the outside world is as strange as the tales say. Note that the underlined skills are Favoured and gain an extra bonus when Hope is spent on them.

Name: Falco Hornblower
Culture: Hobbits of the Shire Standard of Living: Prosperous
Cultural Blessing: Hobbit-sense (Add one to Fellowship rating; roll Feat Die twice and keep best result for Wisdom rolls)
Calling: Wanderer Shadow Weakness: Wanderering-madness
- TRAITS -
Specialities: Herb-lore, Story-telling
Distinctive Features: Keen-eyed, Folk-lore, True-hearted
- ATTRIBUTES -
Body (Base/Favoured): 2/3
Heart (Base/Favoured): 6/9
Wits (Base/Favoured): 6/8
- COMMON SKILLS -
Personality Skills – Awe 0 Inspire 0 Persuade 2
Movement Skills – Athletics 1 Travel 1 Stealth 3
Perception Skills – Awareness 2 Insight 1 Search 2
Survival Skills – Explore 2 Healing 2 Hunting 0
Custom Skills – Song 2 Courtesy 3 Riddle 2
Vocation Skills – Craft 0 Battle 0 Lore 2
- WEAPON SKILLS -
Bow 2, Short Sword 1, Dagger 1
Parry 8 Damage 2
- GEAR -
Travelling gear, Flute, Short Sword, Bow & Arrows, Dagger, Leather Shirt (Armour 1d) & Iron & Leather Cap (+1 Armour)
- VIRTUES -
Fair Shot (For a ranged attack, roll the Feat die twice and keep the best result.)
Experience 0 Valour 1 Wisdom 2
Endurance 25 Fatigue 9
Hope 21 Shadow 0
Weary 0 Miserable 0 Wounded 0

The core mechanic in The One Ring RPG involves a dice pool composed of ordinary six-sided dice and a single twelve-sided luck die rolled against a Target Number. The standard six-sided dice, of which the game comes with a total of six, are marked between one and six. The numbers between four and six are marked in solid ink, whilst those between one and three are done as outlines – these outlined numbers actually count as zero when a character attempts an action whilst he is Weary. The six on each of these dice is marked with a “Tengwar” or “T” rune, which when rolled indicates great or even extraordinary successes. The single twelve-sided die, or Feat Die, is marked with numbers between one and ten, and two runes. The first rune is Gandalf’s “G” rune, which when rolled indicates an automatic success. The other rune is the “Eye of Sauron,” which rolled is equal to a roll of zero on the Feat Die. To undertake an action, a character rolls a number of dice equal to a skill and the Feat Die, and adds the total up in order to beat a Target Number, with a Moderate Target Number being 14, which a character with a skill rating of three is expected to be capable of passing.

If a character cannot achieve this, then he can expend a point of Hope to act a little more heroically and add the value of the attribute to the total. For example, Nain, a vengeful dwarf travelling with Falco Hornblower, a Witty Gentleman from the Shire, come across a band of Orcs camped out near a path through Mirkwood. He attempts to sneak up on the encampment in order to gather their intentions, but fails the action test. He spends a point of Hope, either his own or from the points available from his Fellowship to gain a bonus equal to the associated attribute, which in the case of the Stealth skill, would be Wits. Were Falco in the same situation and he failed the Stealth roll, he gets to add the Favoured value of the associated attribute, because for him, Stealth is a favoured skill.

The One Ring RPG is played over two different phases, the Adventuring Phase and the Fellowship Phase. In the Adventuring Phase, the Loremaster and players engage in the traditional activities of a fantasy roleplaying game in that their characters travel, explore, confront foes, and in general, have adventures. This being an RPG set in Middle Earth, it is no surprise that The One Ring RPG places an emphasis on travel, or rather going on a journey. In fact, the adventurers are expected to keep a map of the places that they travel to, and when they do journey somewhere, it becomes a task in which all of the participants can influence. With a successful Lore skill roll before it begins, a journey’s length can be shortened and its burdens eased, but on a failed roll, then it becomes longer. Whilst on the journey, the Guide rolls his Travel skill, the Scout his Explore to find the best camp sites, the Huntsman his Hunting skill to acquire food, and the Look-out Man his Awareness to spot any potential threats. If any of these rolls, or the Fatigue rolls necessary to complete in order to complete a job, are failed, then an encounter or a hazard can result. The Loremaster ’s Book goes into more detail about journeys and even describes the many of the typical journeys made across the Wilderland. Again these travel rules model another aspect of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and mark The One Ring RPG as being different to other fantasy roleplaying games.

Of course, one type of encounter is combat. Unlike other RPGs, combat in The One Ring RPG does not involve rolling initiative, each character assuming a Stance towards the enemy, which varies in aggression. The four stances are Forward, Open, Defensive, and Rearward, and the characters attack in that order. Also, the more towards the enemy a Stance is, the more aggressive a character is being and the less defensive, so it is easier for him to hit an enemy, just as it is easier for an enemy to hit him. An enemy’s chance to hit a character is modified by his innate Parry value, plus by any shield deployed.

When it comes to attacking in combat, and Rearward characters can only engage the enemy with missile attacks, successful attacks do damage as per the weapon used. This can be improved by rolling Great or Extraordinary successes that enable an attacker to inflict extra damage equal to or twice his Body attribute accordingly. Damage is deducted from a hero’s Endurance, so it is possible to be Wearied in combat. Damage beyond Endurance loss can be inflicted through Piercing Blows that breach a defender’s armour, these either being rolled on the Feat die or being made as the result of a Called Shot with bows and spears. Called Shots with other weapons can result in smashed shields or an opponent being disarmed. Armour can protect against a Piercing Blow, but if it fails, the defender is Wounded. A second Wound will incapacitate a character, but a Wounded character whose Endurance is reduced to zero, he is dying. He can also be killed outright if he receives another Wound.

Combat feels bruising, if not outright brutal, and if it possesses an emphasis, it is on the player characters being on the defensive. This does not mean that it does not allow a Company to attack first, but when such a situation arises, a Loremaster needs to adjust the rules himself to account for this. The combat rules also provides various tactical options depending on a character’s Stance, such as attempting to intimidate a foe in the Forward Stance or protecting a companion in the Defensive Stance.

When the Adventuring Phase ends, the player characters enter the Fellowship Phase, usually at the end of the adventuring year. The Fellowship Phase draws comparison with the “Winter Phase” of the King Arthur Pendragon RPG, in that it can be seen as a period of downtime for the characters, spent either at home or another place of safety in the Wilderland. It affords the characters the opportunity to spend Experience Points on attaining a new Rank in either Valour or Wisdom or improving weapon skills, and Advancement Points on improving skills. In addition, Undertakings allow the characters to meet a patron, such as Beorn the Skinchanger or Radagast the Brown; Heal Corruption gained during the previous Adventuring Phase; improve their Standard of Living or Standard; and even establish a new sanctuary where their Company is always welcome.
The effect of the Fellowship Phase is to further enforce the feel of The One Ring RPG as an RPG based on Tolkien’s stories. How often do we read in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings of the need for the heroes to rest and recuperate at the end of a long journey or after a dreadful time out in the wilds? For the most part, the Fellowship Phase involves the Loremaster taking directions from the players, interpreting their suggestions as to what happens to their characters over the Winter.

Many of the rules and concepts explained in the Adventurer’s Book are expanded upon and explained in more detail in the shorter Loremaster’s Book. It also introduces elements of the setting that are for the Loremaster’s eyes only. Chief amongst these are the corrupting influence of the Shadow. A character gains Shadow points from Sources of Corruption that include experiencing distressing events, such as a personal tragedy or seeing the senseless destruction of the Orcs; spending too long in Blighted Places, areas area tainted by manifestations of the Shadow; committing despicable or dishonourable Misdeeds; and taking possession of a cursed or tainted item.

Accumulating too many Shadow points and losing too much Hope can lead to a character being Miserable. This makes him susceptible to Madness, and with each onset of Madness, a character degenerates and exhibits certain flaws. How he degenerates is determined by his Calling. For example, a character with the Scholar Calling is prone to the Lure of Secrets, so that when he is driven into Madness by the effects of the Shadow, he is at first Haughty. Subsequent bouts of Madness will make him Scornful, then Scheming, and finally, Treacherous. After this, a mad character will either die at his own hand or that of others, if he does not become a servant of Shadow itself. Elves of course, have the opportunity to sail into the Uttermost West.

For the most part, NPCs or Loremaster Characters in The One Ring RPG are slimmed versions of standard characters that the players create. Dealing with one in a roleplaying encounter is governed by his Tolerance rating, simply the number of times a Company can fail their rolls before their actions or behaviour prevents them from gaining an NPC’s co-operation. The rating will be set by a Company’s highest Wisdom or Valour, depending upon if the NPC values courage, renown, or prowess, or peace and knowledge. Prejudice will also affect an NPC’s Tolerance, Dwarves in particular suffering with this regard. In some ways this is neat roleplaying mechanic, but it has the potential to be frustrating for the players if they exceed an NPC’s Tolerance and cannot seem to progress. Then again, they will just have to find a way around this obstacle.

In terms of foes, The One Ring RPG gives quite a short bestiary, little more than variations Orcs, Spiders, Trolls, and Wolves plus Vampires. This is not as limiting as it might sound, as there are plenty of variations and they are, after all, species indigenous to the Wilderland. As with other Loremaster Characters, they are simplified in terms of statistics, right down to a single Attribute, six skills, weapon skills, and Special Abilities. The latter work with a creature’s Hate, points sometimes spent to activate a Special Ability or are occasionally lost because of a Special Ability. For example, a Goblin Archer only has a single point of Hate, and the Special Abilities “Hate Sunlight,” “Craven,” and “Denizen of the Dark.” With the first, the Goblin will lose his point of Hate if he spends time under the Sun; with second, he will flee soon after losing that point of Hate, and with the third, his Attribute is doubled whilst he is in the dark. Of course, Goblin Archers are the least of the creatures that might be encountered in the Wilderland, and some of them are most fearsome indeed.

As the earlier mentioned King Arthur Pendragon RPG, a campaign in The One Ring RPG is played year-by-year beginning in 2946 of the Third Age. It is in this year, on the fifth anniversary of the Battle of the Five Armies, that a celebratory great feast is held and that the Council of the North first meets. It is at this feast that it is suggested that the player characters form their Company and agree to venture into the Wilderland. Over the course of the next few years, this Company will encounter evidence pointing to the return of the Shadow to Mirkwood, perhaps gain a patron, and even make a reputation for themselves. The One Ring RPG supports with a reasonable amount of background material and advice for the Loremaster on a setting up a campaign. Rounding out the Loremaster’s Book is an introductory adventure, “The Marsh Bell.”
As beautiful as The One Ring RPG is, it is not perfect. It needs another edit here and there, and whilst there is an index in each book, it does take adjusting to in order to get the best use out of it. Often it lists entries question-like, such as “How Hope and Endurance Work” almost as if trying to answer what a reader wants to know. Otherwise, The One Ring RPG is well written and enjoyable to read.

The reputation of The Lord of the Rings and therefore any RPG based upon it, is that it is “High Fantasy,” and by the definition that it is set in another world entirely other than our own, then The One Ring RPG is also High Fantasy. Yet, in tone and feel, it does not have the grand sweep and nature of either The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, though perhaps in later stages of the campaign, it will approach something more epic. As presented here, the Middle Earth of The One Ring RPG has an earthy feel and a sense of rising Hope following victory at the Battle of the Five Armies, yet once out in the Wilderland, a game could turn out to be nasty, brutal, and short. All of this is supported by very focused rules and mechanics that enforce so many elements seen in Tolkien’s fiction and give the feel of an RPG that portrays Middle Earth rather than just any other fantasy roleplaying game.

Ultimately, The One Ring: Adventures Over The Edge Of The Wild is, and should be seen as a Middle Earth RPG and not The Hobbit RPG or The Lord of the Rings RPG. In fact, it is all the better for not being either, and although it successfully models so many elements from both – travel and the deleterious effects of the Shadow in particular, by moving the focus of The One Ring RPG to the Wilderland, it makes it its very own RPG. Thus, by not standing in the Shadow of either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s The One Ring: Adventures Over The Edge Of The Wild is a superbly done and superbly themed Middle Earth RPG that is still loyal to its source.