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The One Ring RPG - Game Review

The One Ring RPG - Game Review

Andy Smith (of Craziworld PBM fame for those with long memories) introduced me to MERP though at the time and for more than a decade after I was blissfully unaware of PBM and Andy's connection to it. He was running the adventures out of the back of the original red book down at the local games club (back in the day when they existed). It was shortly after that that I first picked up LoTR, then The Hobbit, Silmarillion and others in quick succession. I became a Tolkien Fanatic.

Still young, I was oblivious to the glaring disparity between Tolkien's portrayal of Middle-earth and that presented in the multitude of products by ICE. As principle Game Master I was content with flying characters, teleporting from dark holds after looting ancient tombs on the Cardolan downs.

It was only as I matured that the penny dropped and that maybe, just maybe the often quoted high-magic realm of Middle-earth was not quite so high-magic after all. Characters in Tolkien’s stories were not being resurrected or flying (except when riding flying beasts) and as for Long Door and various other forms of Teleportation well, they were clearly out.


I became distinctly aware that Middle-earth had been shoehorned into Rolemaster and the shoe most definitely didn't fit.
Some years later a new system was released; Decipher's LoTR. Initial enthusiasm for the system was however not sustained. The 2d6 system was simply put quite awful. A few lucky rolls during character creation by one of the players, supposedly a bard was vastly superior to the rest of the group and despite efforts to reign himself in, more often than not ended up being 'one man army'.

There were a myriad of other issues with the system which meant that even though they appeared to get the magic levels reasonably right we never really got into it and the system now gathers dust on the shelf. I suspect that others felt the same as the system was soon ditched.

After this we visited Middle-earth a few times using the GURPS and Pendragon systems and while both, with some tinkering were alright for a while, never truly captured the quintessence of the setting.

So it was with a great deal of scepticism that I purchased The One Ring (TOR) as I presumed that this would be yet another attempt to rake in cash on the back of the popularity of Tolkien's work.

Upon briefly looking through the book it struck me that the artwork had been largely done in the style of Allen Lee and John Howe (though I always like the style of Angus McBride). It had the feel of Tolkien's world and the general look of the book was pretty good. You got the feeling that the people might actually give a damn.

A more thorough reading revealed that the characters were surprisingly balanced. There were merits to all. This at first caused some head scratching; a thousand year old elf was no more skilled than an young man from Dale?

Then again I suppose that an elf will get into a routine such that they either forget skills they have not used in years just like any other person (I have to grab the recipe book that goes with the bread maker if I haven't touched the thing in a few months) and elves that spend their time knee deep in the blood of their enemies do not make it to the hoary age of a thousand in the first place.

Initial scepticism aside I bought into the character creation philosophy. These are characters that for one reason or another have decided to start adventuring, be it at the age of 18 or the age of 180, and up to this point they have not seriously pressed themselves to become heroes.

What is clear in the system is that it has taken a holistic approach to the design. Rather than simply creating a mash of skills, items and backgrounds then moving onto locations to loot, the system looks at the fundamental features of how heroes behave and how events unfold in the books. This has been captured through six mechanics:

Character Creation
From picking race the player then develops the character through choices that are tied to the culture of the character. This makes for stereotyped characters to some degree (though not hugely), but surely this is the point of playing a character in Middle-earth?

Journeys
The journey accounts for an important part of the adventure. While also providing potential encounters tailored to the region of wilderness being traversed, the toil of the journey can take its toll on the characters. Journeys into the heart of the wilds before even reaching the destination can have the characters weary due to steadily increasing fatigue. The prospect of a good night’s sleep in a homely house becomes very welcome. Places like the heart of Mirkwood are not just a bunch of trees and monsters; they will grind down characters before a monster is ever encountered.

Combat
The system is quite innovative, allowing the character to adopt tactics for the combat. There are a few curious issues such both enemy and character archers using the stance of the character to determine chance to hit. This gives a clear advantage to the enemy as firing at characters taking an aggressive stance is easier, while character archers have to take a rearward stance making their accuracy very low. The encounters are often against a tide of foes and few people tend to wear armour. Most of the hits whittle the characters endurance, causing weariness and actual wounds do not appear to be that common. This is probably just as well because characters can only be wounded once before being killed and healing a wound cannot be achieved in the wilderness. When a character is wounded there is definite panic by the players. Combat therefore appears to be a thing to survive rather than seek which is as it should be.

Influence of the Shadow
Corruption has been dealt with very nicely; at least it seems so having now ran a few sessions. The encounters along the way test them, potentially causing the loss of hope as hope is used to succeed where skill alone fails. Green adventurers are therefore almost continuously using their luck. Once all hope has been lost they are classed as miserable and there is a chance of going temporarily insane (having a pop at Frodo for the One Ring – you get the picture). There are a few paths towards total corruption allowing the GM to push characters into acting in certain ways at key points.

Encounters
Monsters and NPC’s have been streamlined which makes them really easy to GM compared to the vast lists of abilities, spells, psionics and magic items that they are assigned in other systems. They generally have a few features that are easily implemented. Rather than a copious list of darkness spells and a vast array of toxins, multiple attacks and damages, the horrible giant spiders will follow a set pattern of tactics, changing them as the situation dictates.

Magic
Magic is covered by background abilities generated during character creation and development. This keeps the magic low-key and simple to implement. As the background abilities are tied to the various races it means no hobbit wizards!
As the game plays out you do get a much better feel for the world than has previously been captured by other systems. Does this mean that the system is perfect? No.

My main concern is with the progression of characters. As they become more skilled, they are forced to rely on hope much less often. As such when they do need to reach, they often have a healthy supply of hope to draw on. This is especially true when encountering NPC’s. There rarely seems to be a failure during the encounter and as such achieving 6 or more successes for maximum benefits from the encounter seems to be pretty standard.
My brother and I do not agree on the dice pool for resolving tests. His main grumble is that having a single skill point in skill makes so little difference to the chance of success there is absolutely no point in having it. I disagree on this as the extra die, while not significantly improving the chance of success is often sufficient to bring it in range such that the use of hope (which adds the appropriate stat to the total roll) becomes an option.
For example, the standard difficulty is 14 which need to be equalled or surpassed by the roll of the dice pool consisting of a d12 and a d6 per skill point. The d12 means an average of 6.5 resulting in a failure by 7.5 where the character is unskilled. As the typical stat is 5, even hope will not turn it into a success. A single skill point adds a die (d6) which means the average roll increases to 10 (6.5+3.5). While still a failure, as a typical stat is 5, this means that on average the use of hope will turn it into a success. Personally I consider this a good feature of the system while he is still firmly in the other camp. Then again, I have been GM’ing and he has been burning through his hope due to having plenty of skills at 1 point and therefore just falling short.

To be honest though, it is refreshing to encounter a system that has been purely designed to reflect the setting rather than attempting to be all encompassing but in doing so spread itself so thinly that it fails utterly.
Does it handle two weapon fighting? No.
Does it deal with wizard’s magic? No.
Does it have a system for creating magic items? No.
Does it need any of that stuff? No.

My big grumble however has to be on book layout. It is bad on two accounts, first the index* is far too short, missing entries for things you need to refer to occasionally and second it splits the information between two books ensuring that the GM has to refer to both, invariably the wrong one first.



Is it so bloody difficult to include all aspects of character improvement, skill development and experience, both awarding and spending in one place? And that’s just one example. It took ages just to find out when a monster is actually dead and as for determining if a fellowship phase can be conducted outside a haven, it’s probably written somewhere. I haven’t spotted it per se but found a bit on singing during a fellowship phase returning more hope if in a sanctuary, so presumed as much. I suppose it is a case of learning the layout of the book as much as it is learning the system though in all honesty some judicious use of bullet points would have sufficed.

My other grumble is ambiguity in how the rules are presented. This seems a combination of what was clear in the mind of the designer did not always translate onto a page and in some cases having not sufficiently play-tested it before committing it to the rules. This explains why Francesco Nepitello (principle game designer) has since been busy clarifying and modifying things on the forums. This said, I can’t fault him for that at least. This is clearly a guy passionate about both the system and Middle-earth and it is reflected in the quality of the game system. I have since bought the next three products (Tales of the Wilderness, Long Lake and Heart of the Wild) and can vouch that the quality presented in the core book has been continued throughout the line.

All in all, hats off to Cubicle 7, I heartily recommend this system to all Tolkien fans.

* By popular demand they have since created a new index available as part of this download.




 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

Return of the LiQuans

A close associate of the Baron LiQuan has been haunting the Corewards periphery and like the old Baron it is said he has a meklan connection. It's unclear whether he obtained his meklan nanites via the CIA but there are rumours that the DEN may be helping the Liquan relative in a bid to sow discontent in the Stellar Empire. Exactly why they would start in Corewards is unclear although with DEN allies, the DOM, having strong positions both in the Sol system and the old Harcorp systems of Harlong and Coptuv they may be the linking factor.


 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

Meklan Unleashed on Mobile Bay

Mad Dewiek scientist Dr Kala released a number of Meklan on the busy world of Mobile Bay in the Yank system. Thousands of civilians have been killed in what is treated by DEN warlords as an amusing practical joke. Rather than take any responsibility for their affiliation’s reckless behaviour, a DEN lord rumoured to be half-meklan himself quipped he would nuke the planet whilst another merely saw it as an opportunity to test some of his greener troops in combat. Surprisingly, the KAS planetary defence force was up to the job of repelling the insidious incursion. Questions remain whether further meklan are stored elsewhere on the planet and whether anybody will challenge the Dewiek’s lack of care for the lives of innocents. Probably not, given how even the mighty IMP are now cowering from a fight with the DEN (see inside this edition).


 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

Who is behind the AFA?

Following the large scale holiday attack by the AFA against the FET the question of who is behind the attacks has been raised once again. What is clear is that the AFA is using ships that were transferred from the GTT to the IMP. The organisation and expertise of the operation also reduces the pool of potential candidates. Few can go from commanding a handful of broadswords to half a thousand warships and significant army logistics without a long stint in one of the more combative affiliations. With the DEN’s allies the HEX in close relations with the FET and no recent history of animosity between the aliens and FET, at least since the departure of former one-eye big-bun Norozov, it would be a bizarre turn of events if they were behind these attacks. Frankly, there’s no point dancing around it. The IMP are clearly behind the AFA. The question is what can anybody do about this move of significant Imperial resources to a black-flag agency?


 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

Fox Effects Fantastic Turnaround

With his feet barely under the table, Xavier Fox has managed to dramatically turn things around at the GTT. With year-on-year sales figures up by 23%, manufacturing up 42% and ship production increased by 36%, the megacorporation is running at full steam with noticeable impact on local economies across the Stellar Empire. Political analysts also note that after a period of retrenchment following the disastrous leadership of Ike Krieger, investment in defence is at a five-year high. After such bullish growth, the trick will be for Mr. Fox to recruit C-level executives fast enough to match his ambitions. It is notable in temperament, the current crop of GTT politicals do not exhibit the monomaniacal xenophobia of their predecessors and have resisted repeated provocations by the DEN to enter a pointless spar before they have re-established superiority against the foolhardy aliens.


 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

Felini flounder in Winter against superior Dewiek forces

The FEL have managed to get their asses kicked by the DEN yet again after provoking the definitely “not cute or cuddly” Dewiek in the Crossley system. The furry punching bags had bought a civilian flagged outpost in the system, without permission or under certain conditions depending on who you ask, and then had the gall to reinforce this error by positioning warships in orbit. The famously patient warlord Halvor did not buy the story these heavy hull armed ships were merely transports and sent a pack to clear the orbit. The mouthy yet green Felini fleet commander Pr'prz fancied his chances against what looked like a light complement of DEN warships and ordered his own warships to engage in the neighbouring Winter system. The result was predictably a wipe out of the FEL forces consisting of forty-seven capital warships at no loss to the DEN. Once again, a series of calamitous decision making resulted in Felini lives being wasted by a leadership barely fit to clean a litter tray. The otherwise untested Halvor can now claim some victory ale although with his penchant for picking on creatures as weak as Gracians, it’s not exactly clear how much glory this new breed of Dewiek warrior can claim against the legends of old.


 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

Dastardly Dewiek Disregard Yank Neutrality

The governor of a MRC outpost in the Yank system reports that a 400-hull DEN warship called Grey Hunter Axiom entered orbit of Spritzer and opened fire with weapons of mass destruction (WoMD) against a platform, outpost, ground party and ship. Reports indicate significant casualties to Kastorian personnel both in space and on the ground. The KAS Junta is gruffly warning, with a slightly indifferent air, that everybody better stay out of the sector of the outpost for their own health. It is unclear what measures the KAS have or will take against the DEN on this matter. Such a breach of Yank neutrality has in the past caused the Dewiek to froth at the bit against the Empire for their disregard of ‘civilised’ norms. Their current silence on this matter speaks volumes.


 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

Yenni-bodies Pirates?

A PIR outpost was miraculously discovered by an IMP freighter, of all things, in the Yanni system with several Javelin class warships in orbit. After noticing the IMP freighter and seeing the public post by Jack Jones on subspace, the PIR decided to flee and leave a combined force of IMP and FET forces to capture the outpost. A brain damaged three-year old commentator who still believed in the goodness of people and Santa Claus was quick to commend the IMP on their good work, dismissing those who thought it no more than a convenient clearing up operation signifying* completion of operations in the nearby FET claimed systems of Graydown, Canth and Onissian by IMP puppet Edward Lowe. Meanwhile, the Wolf Lord Lyceum summed up the view of many when he screamed, “What is this amateur b*llshit?” into an uncaring universe.


 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

Crowe Coups Self

The IMP Viceroy Tiberius Crowe has finally achieved something in his unremarkable tenure by relinquishing even the semblance of wearing big boy pants and instead, appointed Jack Jones as Patrol Commissioner, salty spokesperson and policy maker for the Empire. Crowe will now join CIA Director Laton in riding the special bus to work where the two of them will enjoy long pleasant afternoons sipping cups of tea. Actually, just tepid fruit-scented water as neither of them can be fully trusted with a hot kettle. Occasionally, they might be visited by equally dynamic war “veteran” Admiral Bridge to enjoy mimes presenting the latest comics from the Howl. Meanwhile, Jones is putting pressure on the FET and will soon no doubt find a pretext to deploy his vast mercenary forces against anyone else who is seen working too closely with his most hated of enemies, the HEX.


 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

Highlord Aadolf Loses Control As Dewiek Break Peace Treaty

Around one hundred DEN warships have launched an attack on a small GTT destroyer squadron of forty ships in the Daggern system. Two GTT ships were destroyed and another fifteen suffered noticeable damage. CEO Xavier Fox issued a restrained but angry statement demanding the DEN explain themselves. Highlord Aadolf’s buffoon-like response amounted to “Dewiek be Dewiek, let’s drink and forget about it.” Cold comfort for the dead crew onboard the GTT ships and their families. Especially, as seems likely at this time, the Empire will settle for some bloody money instead of retribution.


 

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I’ve played on and off for approximately 10 years, over a 20 year spell. After some interesting debate on the in-game forum, I did wonder what, exactly, has kept drawing me back to the game, when for so many others I’ve generally lost interest after a few months.

Ultimately, I think it is a combination of automation (that allows the game to handle thousands of positions to interact on a daily basis) coupled with Special Actions (that allow the story arc to develop in a way that could not be catered for by a set of predefined list of available orders).
-Zigic