Expanding Middle-Earth

I’ve gone on the record as saying that I consider the core rules of The One Ring to be the best rules for Middle-Earth gaming so far in terms of capturing the distinctive themes and flavour of the setting. That said, the core set does not remotely have enough space for a full description of the setting, which is the other area the game must sink or swim on; after all, if you are playing it at all you are probably here less for whatever homebrew setting your group might dream up and more for the “authentic” Middle-Earth experience.

Thus, The One Ring is a game line that is highly dependent on quality supplemental material to give us a look at the state of affairs in different regions during the gap between The Hobbit and the War of the Ring. Here’s my take on the material issued in hard copy so far…

Adventurer’s Companion

This is a player-facing supplement that also acts as a useful compilation of material otherwise strung through the various setting supplements – you’ve got all the different cultures and Fellowship Phase actions that have come out in the preceding products all brought together in a single book, which both means you don’t have to buy every single supplement to get them all and makes a very handy player reference they can comfortably read cover to cover without spoiling any referee-only information; it also adds further details to this material, like offering rules for working for patrons and giving details of various groups of adventurers active in the years between the end of The Hobbit and the start of Lord of the Rings.

In addition, the Companion offers some new material too, and nicely this material tends to provide better support for including the new options from supplements. For instance, we have reprinted here from the Rivendell supplement the rules for playing a Dúnedain like Aragorn, or a High Elf of Rivendell. These are character types tagged as being substantially more powerful right out of the gate than others, but it’s nice that The One Ring feels able to give you the option of breaking from the standard RPG assumption of PCs being balanced against one another in favour of playing a party with more uneven power levels, like the actual Fellowship of the Ring.

In service of this, the Companion introduces additional rules to support parties where one or more members are substantially more powerful than others. There’s a new PC role, the Leader, to model that, as well as some new combat rules: at the start of a combat you can nominate party members to special positions in the party – the Ward, intended for the weakest party member who needs the most protection, the Champion, the toughest badass who can take the most punishment, and the Captain, the tactical leader.

Then, in combat, each of those roles has special moves they can do in keeping with their particular combat position to help out – the Captain can rally the party, the Champion can demoralise and beat down foes, and the Ward can perform additional actions as well as attacking in the round. In addition, when dealing with combats in which the party is outnumbered, the engagement rules are tweaked such that the referee must send the most powerful creatures after the Champion and the least after the Ward.

Between this and various other little tweaks, this is both a nice collection of expanded options for players and, even better, offers a bunch of nice summaries and diagrams of basic game processes, making this a really handy tool to have to hand for any One Ring player.

The Laketown Sourcebook

Packaged with the One Ring referee screen, this represents a good rendition of a basic but serviceable model for detailing new areas of Middle-Earth: you get a gazetteer of the town, you get details on major festivals and the like, you’re offered some special actions for the Fellowship Phase people can try out when they have downtime, you have details on playing members of the local culture and a statted-up local sample PC, and you have details on local threats and monsters. This format manages to cover a whole lot of useful, gameable stuff in a few pages, and has to rank as one of the best booklets packaged with a GM screen I’ve ever come across.

Tales From Wilderland

The first adventure supplement for The One Ring provides a set of adventures intended to be largely playable with just the core set (though the Laketown Sourcebook and other location-specific supplements will be handy with some). Don’t Leave the Path is a nice, simple adventure which would make a great introduction to the system, gently introducing both referee and player alike to the distinctive mechanics of The One Ring such as journeys and audiences, and providing a suitably atmospheric trip through Mirkwood. It’s quite linear, but for the purposes of an introductory adventure that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s the sort of endeavour (following a pre-established path through the dire forest) which you would expect to be basically linear in nature anyway.

Of Leaves & Stewed Hobbit offers a somewhat more complex scenario, with a major climactic challenge being amenable to all sorts of different solutions. Its setup does depend on a scripted event, and to its credit the adventure actually gives pointers on how the PCs might avert that if they have the right traits and the dice on their side. It also establishes a distinctive locale (a Hobbit-run inn in Wilderland, its proprietors having been inspired by Bilbo’s wild tales) which if the PCs become invested in could be a nice recurring locale in the campaign – or if they don’t it can be swept away by the encroaching darkness.

Kinstrife & Dark Tidings takes on the dark, pessimistic tone of some of Tolkien’s more downbeat stories, as the player characters are sent to chase down a kinslayer. It’s exciting enough and has extensive scope for things to jump one way or another; my only real beef with it is that the conclusion seems to assume that the PCs will advocate mercy for the kinslayer, whereas whilst there were certainly extenuating circumstances I think it’d be entirely valid for the party to collectively decide that the character in question needs to pay the price since he is, even given the kindest view of his actions, kind of a danger to himself and others.

Those Who Tarry No Longer has the PCs escorting an ancient elf on a leg of her journey to the West. It’s highly linear, since it’s the lead-in to the mini-campaign against the dreadful Gibbet King that the last adventures in the book concentrate on. The plotline continues in A Darkness In the Marshes, which is delicously spooky, and The Crossings of Celduin, an intense battle sequence. (This latter one may need finessing if you are also using other campaign materials which have adventures kicking off in Dale during the annual celebration of the Battle of Five Armies – though it should be easy enough to have this one happening one year and a different adventure seed happening in a different year. The culmination of the plot in The Watch On the Heath is notable for the range of implications it potentially has on the War of the Ring

Overall, Tales From Wilderland does what it sets out to do – provides neat little missions which can be doled out either for short-term One Ring play or as spicy side-stories in a more involved campaign.

The Heart of the Wild

Focusing on Mirkwood and the river valleys surrounding it, this supplement started the approach of pairing setting material with adventure books – the idea is that the important locations and NPCs are all detailed here, so you can run your own Mirkwood-focused campaign with just this book if you want or you can pick up The Darkening of Mirkwood (which requires this book to play). This is probably a slightly worse deal if you were going to use both, but a much better deal if you don’t want to use the prewritten campaign.

As far as locales and people in here, you get some true favourites from the books – the Beornlings, Radagast the Brown, the elf-king of Mirkwood and his halls, and of course Dol Guldor – headquarters of Sauron back when he was masquerading as the Necromancer, before being driven out at the end of The Hobbit. Other invented peoples and places fit this rugged, gloomy aesthetic nicely.

The Darkening of Mirkwood

This is effectively a One Ring spin on The Great Pendragon Campaign, albeit with a somewhat more limited focus in terms of timespan and geographic location. Covering the years for 2947 to 2077, it gives year-by-year details on what’s going on in the region of Mirkwood in the wake of Sauron returning to Mordor and declaring his presence there.

Canonically, what Tolkien has happening next is that Sauron sends some of the Nazgûl to occupy Dol Guldur – the terrible fortress that Sauron had held in his guise as the Necromancer up until the era of The Hobbit – and Mirkwood becomes a terrible fastness of darkness during the War of the Ring. The campaign gives One Ring PCs a chance to not only witness these events but resist them, whether this be by months, or years, or – in the case of truly exceptional success on their part – a complete expulsion of the Nazgûl from Mirkwood.

New rules for Holdings allow player characters to develop connections to particular places and establishments and the like, allowing them to put down roots, and the thirty-year span of the campaign means that PCs not subject to elven or dwarven longevity really need to think about producing or adopting suitable heirs. Each year offers a nice mix of new rumours, a short adventure that the PCs might engage with, but with a few exceptions isn’t so overstuffed with incidents that you couldn’t also run your own adventures or side campaigns alongside it. (In particular, the adventures in Tales From Wilderland thematically sit alongside this one very nicely.)

The influence of Stafford’s Great Pendragon Campaign is prominently and proudly displayed, but frankly why not – it’s an approach which suits the epic sweep of Middle-Earth, particularly the great span of events that happen between the end of The Hobbit and the War of the Ring kicking off. (It’s easy to forget that in The Fellowship of the Ring some 17 years pass between Bilbo’s farewell party and Frodo leaving the Shire, during which Gandalf and Aragorn and others are not exactly idle.)

The nice thing about the book is that even if you decide not to run the actual adventure, the progress of years can still give you an idea of what’s going on in Mirkwood whilst your PCs are adventuring off elsewhere, so if they decide to swing by Mirkwood later you can judge just how bad things have got and potentially even pick up the campaign there. Much like the Great Pendragon Campaign, there’s a certain scope for replayability which makes it as much a supplement as a preprogrammed adventure. The set of this and Heart of the Wild consequently come highly recommended.

Rivendell

This basically gives the Heart of the Wild treatment to the other side of the Misty Mountains – specifically, the region from Rivendell in the East to Bree in the West. Much of this is a lonely, desolate region, thinly populated by the living but replete with the ruins of the past thanks to its tormented history, but there’s several important sites here – including Angmar, the Witch-King’s very own ‘hood.

On top of this, the extensive description of Rivendell itself is handy (since it’s the most viable jumping-off point for adventure in the area aside from Bree, which eventually got its own sourcebook as detailed below), as is the introduction of High Elves and Rangers as particularly powerful character types – potentially suitable for introducing into the campaign if you’ve been playing a long time so starting characters of the original power tier would be a bit too left behind.

Ruins of the North

Though set against a conceptually similar background to The Darkening of Mirkwood – specifically, the stirring of the various servants of the Witch-King of Angmar as the Lord of the Nazgûl re-establishes his grip on the region in Sauron’s name – this is more of a collection of standalone adventures like Tales From Wilderland, rather than being a grand campaign against the Witch-King’s forces. That’s appropriate for the time period it assumes (2954-2977), and the fact that the Witch-King has a certain stature in canon that the Nazgûl occupying Dol Guldur don’t have – putting him back in his box trips up the War of the Ring too much, but winning individual victories against his servants might help affect Angmar’s preparedness for the war appropriately.

The first adventure, Nightmares of Angmar, is largely set up as a way to introduce player characters to the region if they’ve previously been adventuring east of the Misty Mountains, as well as providing them with an “in” for getting into Rivendell. All very well, except the latter only triggers if the PCs bother to undertake a fight they could just as happily avoid.

Harder Than Stone has more significant structural issues; it’s basically a completely linear adventure which is lacking in actual interactivity, since the PCs are effectively meant to go somewhere and watch something happen and suffer if they attempt to get involved or get noticed. There’s an interesting side plot involving a spirit that has been unwillingly bound into service, but given that this is implied to be one of the Maiar this feels extremely significant – enough so that the work to free this thing should really be the focus of the adventure, not the intelligence-gathering (especially since I’m not seeing why the intelligence-gathering is needed once contact is made with the spirit, who would quite likely be willing to just tell the PCs all the information they could have otherwise gathered by snooping).

At the midpoint we get two shorter scenarios. Concerning Archers provides the party with a little errand they can conceivably perform for Bilbo Baggins whenever they are in the vicinity of Fornost. The Company of the Wain is not so much a single continuous adventure as it is a series of encounters with a travelling fair that works the western edge of the region.

The last two adventures in the collection are both pretty solid. What Lies Beneath offers a stark reminder that the Rangers have a long history and not always a glorious or noble one; Shadows Over Tyrn Gorthad has the PCs investigating the matter of the barrow-wights on behalf of Gandalf, and neatly has a conclusion which could be a hideous ordeal or a comparative cakewalk depending on how much useful information the PCs have found for Gandalf.

As a result of the diverse hands penning it, this is much less consistent than Tales From Wilderland or The Darkening of Mirkwood, but I’d say it’s still a useful collection.

Horse-Lords of Rohan

Naturally, this is the Rohan sourcebook, with an assumed date of 2960 onwards – about the time when Theoden, who’d be the aging king come the War of the Ring, is a fresh-faced 12 year old prince. On top of Rohan itself and expanded rules on horsies, you also get more details on a range of important locations in the region – the lands of the Dunlendings, whose grudges against the Rohirrim aren’t entirely unjustified, the forest of Fornost where the ents live, and of course Isengard, where Saruman hangs out.

The Isengard section includes extensive details on how to handle Saruman and his fall to corruption over the time span of a One Ring campaign; Isengard itself, for instance, is a much more benign place and far easier to visit early on (though the White Wizard isn’t especially keen on uninvited guests at the best of times), whereas by 2990 Saruman’s activities have become so intensely dodgy that only trusted allies are allowed in. Opportunities to become agents of Saruman may well make sense early on in the campaign, when his growing corruption is less apparent – and indeed, the book notes that if your group is willing to diverge from canon, the project of averting his fall to corruption would make a suitably epic focus for a long-term campaign – and system opportunities to become embroiled in his schemes are presented.

On the whole, this is another decidedly useful sourcebook unpacking the details of another important region of Middle-Earth, bringing the One Ring line that much closer to completion.

Erebor: The Lonely Mountain

As the title implies, this covers Erebor – once the domain of Smaug, now the home of a thriving kingdom of dwarves, with many of Bilbo’s old companions still knocking about in one leadership role or another. Along with the additional details on dwarves – including a supplementary addition to the magic item design rules from Rivendell especially for dwarf-forged pieces – the book also extends its scope beyond Erebor itself to take in much of its corner of the map.

This makes it especially useful because it includes Dale, the capital of Bard’s new kingdom. Given the extensive links between Dale and Lake-Town, it seems likely that any player character party starting out in the region (as the game line tends to assume) would soon become interested in visiting Dale, so having these details is very useful (and arguably should really have come earlier in the line, but since they’re here now I can’t feel too fussy about it). It’s also nice to see Bard given a queen who is a capable and useful leader of the nation in her own right, because goodness knows we have to look a bit beyond Tolkien canon if we want to improve the number of significant women in the story.

Erebor’s most famous resident, of course, is Smaug, who is dead – but north in the Grey Mountains is found the Withered Heath, where dragons can still be found. Thus, as well as describing the various other threats of the Grey Mountains, the book devotes an entire chapter to developing highly individual dragons for use in One Ring campaigns. Naturally, it would be entirely tonally inappropriate to have dragons be stuff player characters fought and killed as a matter of course – to be honest, even in Dungeons & Dragons a fight against a dragon ought to be a major event – so having all this detail to support the process of designing your own draconic villains is very helpful.

Tackling dragons also feels like something major and important that One Ring characters can do to contribute to the War of the Ring without actually being Frodo or Aragorn. If I am remembering my canon correctly, Tolkien said that had Smaug not been killed off, the Nazgul who came north seeking allies would have found not the unfriendly dwarf-kingdom of Erebor but a very keen ally in Smaug, one who would have been able to rouse the dragons of the Withered Heath to come down to fight for Sauron; the addition of such a force would have been devastating, to the point where you’d have to question whether Frodo and Sam could have possibly got through to Mt. Doom in such a scenario. That being the case, having the climax of a One Ring campaign be a desperate attempt to stop the dragons getting involved in the War of the Ring would be both suitably dramatic and reflect Tolkien’s own assessment of the situation.

That’s the nice thing about this supplement, and the location supplements for The One Ring in general – not only do they have a good handle on what’s there in the locations they discuss, but they also have a firm idea of what sort of adventures people might want to have there.

Bree

That virtue is particularly useful in the case of Bree.

Bree is a natural choice for a village and surrounding region to further develop. For one thing, the Prancing Pony is the iconic inn where adventurers meet up with unlikely allies and go forth on a quest in fantasy fiction. (The writers make the wise choice of saying that Barliman Butterbur’s dad, Barnabus, who is the current innkeeper during the assumed timeframe of The One Ring is basically a lot like his son, because would a visit to the Prancing Pony feel right without an encounter with that friendly-but-forgetful personality behind the bar? No, it wouldn’t.)

On top of that, Bree-Land is just a flat-out interesting community – a group of mixed settlements of humans and hobbits watched over by the benign but mistrusted Rangers which is settled enough to feel broadly civilised but deep enough into the wild that it doesn’t feel safe. (Remember, in The Fellowship of the Ring there is at least one agent of the Enemy in town itself.) You can make an argument that although their run-ins with Nazgul and Tom Bombadil and Barrow-Wights and malevolent trees so far have already amply demonstrated to the Hobbits that their journey is not going to be a safe and easy one, it’s really at Bree that the tone of Fellowship of the Ring shifts; Aragorn shows up and declares that it’s time to stop treating the mission like a jolly holiday and start giving at least a shred of attention to operational security, Gandalf’s failure to arrive sets an ominous tone, the Nazgul come closer than ever to catching our heroes and the gang flees town into a journey which quickly turns into a nightmare.

In short, then, Bree is an excellent jumping-off point for a campaign – a place precarious enough that there’s local opportunities for adventure, but at the same time once you leave there and head out into the wilds it all gets even more dangerous from that point onwards. Recognising this, and aware that the Bree region is probably a bit too small to fill the page count of a full supplement, the Bree book breaks from the previous region book/adventure book model by being a region supplement and adventure supplement all in one, with about half the page count being dedicated to describing the area whilst the other half provides a brace of linked adventures that can be played through in the region – either as a way for visiting adventurers to help out the locals, or as the spark that inspires some locals to take up the fight against the Enemy.

With this supplement, the town of Bree then becomes a very viable alternate starting point for One Ring campaigns for those who don’t want to start out in Lake-Town, and as such represents another excellent addition to the game line.

Journeys & Maps

This provides some additional guidelines and ideas for running journeys (including rules for boat journeys), along with a delightful bundle of poster-sized maps of the setting – both versions with hexes for game mechanical calculation of fatigue and the like, and without. The maps alone are lovely and would be more than worth the price by themselves, and the store of additional ideas for travel encounters is a welcome bonus – as is the index of locations mentioned in previous One Ring releases.

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Houses of the Bungled

Houses of the Blooded is John Wick’s self-proclaimed attempt at an “anti-D&D” – a fantasy RPG which turns the assumptions of Dungeons & Dragons on its head, so rather than playing a group of rootless mercenaries watching each others’ backs as you seek fame and fortune, you play a clique of well-established inhuman nobles who will gladly shank each other in the name of revenge and romance. (In other words, it’s an attempt to implement on tabletop the sort of action you get in some types of highly political, player-vs.-player-happy LARPs.)

So far, so good. However, there’s two major issues with the core book which make it impossible for me to engage with and invest in the game, despite having given it an honest try in my old Monday evening group. The first is the manner of presentation of the book; the second is the slipshod game mechanics and the way they don’t actually support what Wick wants them to support.

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Kickstopper: Hudson and Brand Are Dead

Although the 1920s (Lovecraft’s own era) and the modern day (for obvious reasons of participant familiarity) remain the most popular eras for Call of Cthulhu play, the late 19th Century has persistently remained another one. Chaosium has recently given an official treatment to a Lovecraftian spin on the Wild West in Down Darker Trails, and before that both Chaosium and third parties have given Victorian London a close look in supplements like Cthulhu By Gaslight and The Golden Dawn; Victorian London is also one of the sample settings in Cthulhu Dark.

Playing in the era involves treading on some potential live wires – there’s a certain juggling act involved in roleplaying people (of various social origins and standings) who believe a range of things which may be wildly objectionable to our modern standards without turning the game into an exercise in simply recapitulating those beliefs. If you get it wrong then you end up with something like Richard Marsh’s The Beetle – in which whatever power the horror depicted has ends up being spoiled horribly by a gleeful embrace of the most simplistic social prejudices of the era. On the other hand, if you get it right, you get something like the best work of Arthur Machen – grabbing the neuroses and prejudices held by the Victorians (and still, reshaped by time, often held by us in the modern day) by the tail and giving them a good hard yank.

With this recently-fulfilled Kickstarter project, small press Stygian Fox offer a rare third party release for the Cthulhu By Gaslight setting, treading into these waters with an offering which, like Pagan Publishing’s much celebrated (and, sadly, long out of print) Golden Dawn supplement, is intended to provide a suitable structure and home base to form an 1890s London campaign around.

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Sharpe? No, Actually It’s Quite Blunt

Aaah, “Napoleonics”. The Napoleonic era holds a special place in wargaming circles. After all, before wargaming became a hobby, it was a serious training and contingency planning exercise, which first took on a form broadly familiar to modern wargamers in the Kriegsspiel engaged in by the Prussian High Command during the Napoleonic era itself. Moreover, it is well-documented that before Dungeons & Dragons not only kicked off the roleplaying game genre but also injected a new enthusiasm for fantasy and science fiction into the wargame scene, the dominant form of wargaming was historically-based, with the American Civil War and the Napoleonic eras being the most popular eras. (One suspects as well that the American Civil War era is somewhat less popular outside of the United States itself.)

Either way, perhaps undeservedly Napoleonic wargames have gained the reputation of being a particularly dry or stuffy niche of the hobby – “grognard” as a term, after all, is a slang term originating from Napoleon’s forces themselves. But there’s no reason why that has to be the case – and the Napoleonic era, whilst it has been extensively mined in fiction (as in Sharpe and Hornblower and other such series) and wargaming, has hardly been touched when it comes to tabletop RPGs.

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“I Am a Servant of the Secret Heartbreaker!”

George Strayton’s The Secret Fire is about as blatant a fantasy heartbreaker as you could hope to find in this day and age. The days of the classic fantasy heartbreaker, a game designed by someone who apparently has little to no exposure to game design ideas beyond Dungeons & Dragons and whatever weird idea they want to graft onto the Dungeons & Dragons chassis but for some reason believes they have created something absolutely revolutionary, have waned since the release of the Open Gaming Licence and the rise of the retroclones – now if you want to release your very own D&D-alike game or house rules for such, it’s easier to either put out your very own retroclone or release your ideas as a supplement for the retroclone closest to your heart.

The Secret Fire does not take this route; indeed, it shows little evidence that it’s even aware of retroclones, or the OGL (which it doesn’t use). At most, George Strayton seems to have a vague passing knowledge of some OSR talking points, which he throws out in an apparent attempt to gain OSR credibility but doesn’t deliver on in his actual design.

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A Diceless Picnic In the Zone

Penned by Ville Vuorela and put out through his Burger Games small press, Stalker is an officially licensed RPG adaptation of Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Vuorela having received permission from Boris. Roadside Picnic was, as cinephiles know, adapted for cinema under the Stalker title by Tarkovsky, resulting in one of his greatest accomplishments; the videogame series S.T.A.L.K.E.R., whilst riffing on many of the same themes, was not actually an authorised release. The RPG takes its primary inspiration from Roadside Picnic itself, but has a lot of time for the particular mood and aesthetic of Stalker, whilst not giving much time to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. at all. Released in Vuorela’s native Finland in 2008 and using his Flow system, an English translation was released in 2012.

The basic premise is this: at an unspecified point in the future, some sort of extraterrestrial and/or transdimensional event happened to Earth – the Visitation. At six points along the 43rd parallel, at locations in the United States, Canada, France, Russia, China and Japan, mysterious Zones appeared where the Visitation took place. Within the Zones the laws of physics are violated in bizarre, dangerous ways, strange artifacts and monuments with unusual powers can be obtained, terrestrial lifeforms are mutated and altered into strange forms or gain strange powers and various other oddness occurs.

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Woke Up, Got Out of Bed, Dragged an Archetype Across My Head

Onyx Path’s second edition of Mage: the Awakening continues the general trend of second edition Chronicles of Darkness games of greatly refining and refocusing the concepts of their often-muddled first editions. Since both the World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness series are both active concerns, the various Chronicles games no longer need to be conflicted between the desire to do something new and the commercial incentive to provide a safe harbour for fans of the equivalent World of Darkness line, which means they can be more confident in their own, distinct identities.

In the case of Mage, the second edition is also an opportunity to restate that core identity in a way which wins over more people. The main thing which people who otherwise don’t know much about the first edition of Awakening seem to latch onto about it is “Isn’t that the one which is all about Atlantis?”; the Atlantis stuff isn’t exactly gone here, but it’s relegated to a brief appendix to illustrate just how inessential to the core concept it is.

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