Monday, January 26, 2015

The One Ring RPG - a review

The One Ring Roleplaying Game, from Cubicle 7, the latest game that aims to create a roleplaying experience specifically for Tolkien's Middle-earth, is a fine game: well-designed, beautifully produced, closely and thoughtfully integrated with the background material. It is also one of the most restricted and procedural games in the Tinkerage collection.

Character creation, for instance, shows a lot of thought. Characters are deeply rooted in their cultural background, and character traits are evocative and interesting. But creating a character is largely a question of choosing options from a list, and although the cultures of Wilderland (Woodsmen, Beornings, Bardings, forest elves and dwarves) are represented, there's no option to play, say, a roaming Gondorian knight or a Rohirrim tinker – although in honour of The Hobbit, halflings are perfectly plausible player-characters. Now, other cultures are slowly being added as new sourcebooks are produced, but this restriction of the scope of character creation in the core rules to the types of the area represents the game's aims: narrow focus with exceptional depths, leading to guided play.

The core mechanic is elegant and nicely evocative, combining a single linear roll for effort on a d12 (with a "Sauron" face for automatic failure and a "Gandalf" face for automatic success) with a pool of d6s for skill and extra levels of success. These dice are rolled against a simple target number (with a nice fatigue mechanism to boot, meaning only the upper digits of skill dice are counted if the character is weary). But with this simple mechanic, there are procedures for almost every aspect of play. There are procedures for encounters with potential patrons and allies, based on a "tolerance" rating and multiple rolls. There are detailed procedures for travelling – one of the strengths of the game is this journeying system. And the abstract combat system requires a multistage approach from surprise to initiative to combat advantage and positioning. All this means that new loremasters will, unless very familiar with the rulebook, find themselves skipping or forgetting many of the stages of play. Speaking of which, there are even procedures for abstracting adventuring play (the adventure phase) from experience and character development (the fellowship phase).

If this weren't enough, there are points for everything. Attributes aren't just standing values, you need to spend a point of Hope to add an attribute score to a roll, unless it's going to a favoured skill, in which case you add the attribute's favoured value. Along with Hope, you spend Endurance; just keep it above Fatigue, or you become Weary (and keep Hope above your Shadow, or you end up Miserable). For encounters, you get Valour and Wisdom, and there are also your Fellowship points, and your Standing, which you keep up by spending Treasure points, and so on. To be fair, all RPGs have their lists of tallies and expendable hit points and fatigue points and so on, but play in The One Ring feels like a great big character points economy with a lot of interdependent values always in flux.

All of this helps to encourage deep, considered play with a detectable Tolkien theme, as characters are pitted not just against external dangers and weariness but the influence of the Shadow and personal corruption as well, but there is a fine line between rules that encourage a particular style of engagement and rules that force a  structure onto player choice, and the shadow of TOR's game design is this sort of prescriptive approach to play itself. Overall, TOR does a fine job of evoking and instilling a sense of Middle-earth and Tolkien themed roleplaying, but one can't help but think that a lighter hand on rules and sub-systems and more evocative and entertaining setting detail could have made this game into a true classic.

[This review is based on a reading of the core rulebook in PDF format, and is not a report on actual play.]