In the Land of Rohan Where the Horsies Neigh…

One of the nice things Cubicle 7 has done with the One Ring line is to do regional supplements in a two-book format: one supplement to give a general overview of the region and its major characters, and an adventure book to provide prewritten adventures for the area in question. They haven’t done these for all the regions they’ve covered – Bree, for instance, covered a small enough area to combine both setting details and adventures into a single book – but where they have it’s a nice way to do it. It means that if you only want the setting detail and don’t give two shits about the prewritten adventure, you don’t have to buy the latter – but if you do go for the prewritten campaign, the setting book greatly enriches it, as well as giving you ample support for if and when the players go off the rails altogether. (Games Workshop ended doing something rather similar with 1st Edition WFRP, with the Power Behind the Throne episode of the Enemy Within mega-campaign being supported by the setting supplement Warhammer City, known by various names in reprints with the most recent renaming being Middenheim: City of Chaos).

Cubicle 7 did Horse-Lords of Rohan a while back, so it was only a matter of time before they got around to doing some horsey adventures with the Riders; Oaths of the Riddermark delivers on this, giving PCs a chance to make a big impact in the court of King Thengel – son of King Fengel, and father of Theoden (the King we remember from The Lord of the Rings).

Continue reading “In the Land of Rohan Where the Horsies Neigh…”

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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.

One OGL To Rule Them All

D&D and Middle-Earth have had a rather complex history. On the one hand, Gygax admitted to not enjoying Tolkien as much as more sword and sorcery-esque fare, and that certainly comes across in the more mercenary assumptions of early editions. At the same time, Gygax knew what was popular. Part of the motivation for Gygax’s original fantasy rules to Chainmail that gave Dave Arneson the seed that became the original Blackmoor campaign, which went on to spawn D&D once the feedback loop passed it through Gygax again, was a desire to pander to a desire to do Tolkienesque battles that had been percolating about in the wargame scene. The balors, treants and halflings of D&D were originally named as balrogs, ents, and hobbits until the Tolkien estate caughed and asked them to stop.

Following that, decades passed with no official meeting of D&D and Middle-Earth, despite some sort of Middle-Earth RPG existing for much of that time span. ICE’s MERP was based off Rolemaster, Decipher’s heavily movie-based Lord of the Rings RPG used their CODA system, and of course Cubicle 7’s The One Ring is a bespoke system made specifically for that game.

However, let it not be said that Cubicle 7 are blind to an opportunity. They have the Middle-Earth RPG licence, Wizards put out a pretty functional OGL for 5E, all the tools were there for them to make a legal, commercially viable Middle-Earth adaptation for D&D, so that’s exactly what they have done in the form of Adventures In Middle-Earth, the rules for which are presented in the Player’s Guide and Loremaster’s Guide.

Continue reading “One OGL To Rule Them All”

Visions of Middle-Earth

People like to express doubts as to whether Tolkien’s legendarium is really suited for adapting to tabletop RPGs, but people keep doing it anyway. Over the years we’ve seen the licensing rights for such things pass from company to company, resulting in three different official RPGs over the years – MERP, the Decipher-published Lord of the Rings range that tied in with the Peter Jackson movies, and the latest official RPG incarnation of Middle Earth, The One Ring. Recently I had a chance to acquire two of the three second hand for a good rate – and the two with a better fan reputation, at that – so I thought I’d dip in to see whether they were what they were cracked up to be. The two games – MERP and The One Ring – both represent very distinct and different takes on the same setting, but only one of them captures the weird mixture of comfortable fairytale and doom-laden epic that is the hallmark of Lord of the Rings

Middle Earth Role-Playing

MERP was produced by ICE, producers of Rolemaster. Having landed the Middle-Earth licence, they had put out a world guide to the setting in 1982, but they went system neutral with it, providing guidelines for adapting a range of different popular fantasy systems of the time to the needs of a Middle-Earth campaign. This strikes me as a smart move -after all, when you’ve landed what is arguably the biggest IP licence in fantasy literature, why limit yourself to just selling it to customers of your house system? – and it was in keeping with the commercial trends of the time, Chaosium having given Thieves World the multi-system treatment the previous year.

However, as the 1980s went on such cross-industry collaboration and permissiveness would go out of style, particularly once TSR and Palladium Books started to flex their legal muscles as a matter of course. On top of that, ICE must have realised that the Middle Earth licence had the potential to reach an audience beyond the existing roleplaying fandom, so an entry-level rules set aimed squarely at them could be a big hit – and if they played their cards right, it could drive sales of both their MERP setting material and their existing RPG rules.

Debuting in 1984, MERP is famously based on a scaled-back version of Rolemaster, and it seems to have been designed with the assumption that people would graduate to using Rolemaster in place of the MERP system when they were good and ready; the text directly encourages this and goes out of its way to mention that you are only getting a fraction of the magic and rules for characters of 1st-10th level and so on and so forth if you stick with just the MERP rules.

The big problem with this drive to encourage people to take up the advanced game is that even the lower-powered characters of MERP don’t really seem to fit the Middle Earth setting. The glaring problem is magic. In Middle Earth magic is rare and always getting rarer, with explicit magic use basically being limited to the Valar and Maiar and mmmmmmaybe elves and dwarves if you count their exceptional craftsmanship as quasi-magical. Conversely, because all of its character classes are inherited from Rolemaster, everyone in MERP can learn magic, and magic a good deal flashier and easier than what Gandalf pulls out of his hat in the books. Relatedly, whilst Rolemaster-style critical hits might be awesome, I don’t remember Tolkien making a habit of using precisely described maimings and injuries to spice up combat scenes, though I guess I could see Peter Jackson drawing on the critical hit tables here.

See, the thing about games based on licences is that they really need to capture the atmosphere of the work they are based on, particularly when that work has a tone as unique as that of The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. MERP does have a particular atmosphere of its own, but that atmosphere doesn’t say Lord of the Rings to me – it says Diet Rolemaster.

And the thing is, even if I wanted to go through the exercise of running Rolemaster in a setting it doesn’t really fit to see how the rules end up warping the setting, I’d be inclined to just use full fat Rolemaster, particularly since the version here isn’t really significantly more simple than core Rolemaster, it just tends to provide you with less options, which isn’t the same thing. (And in some cases it actually offers you more options than you really want -there’s a baffling range of different types of human, and also it offers the opportunity to play several types of orc and troll, which I suspect 99% of people wanting to play a Middle Earth-based game will have no interest in doing.) If you can handle the combat in this, you can handle the wider range of critical hit charts in Arms Law; if you can handle the mechanics of learning and using spells in this, you can handle Spell Law; if you can handle character creation in this, you should be able to work out Character and Campaign Law for yourself.

In short, MERP could only be mistaken for being rules-light by folk who’ve been immersed in rules-heavy RPGs for so long that they’ve forgotten what a genuinely simple RPG system looks like; whilst this could pass muster in the 1980s, when the general fashion was towards increasing complexity, by the 1990s genuinely rules-light RPGs emerged and ICE ended up putting out a Lord of the Rings Adventure Game, which was a simplified version of MERP because they realised MERP wasn’t a simplified enough version of Rolemaster.

It feels like I’m being harsh here, and I don’t really want to be. MERP is a fun game, but that’s because it’s basically Rolemaster, which I’ve previously said is a fun game in its own right. From what I’ve heard it succeeded at introducing a receptive audience of Tolkien fans to RPGs, and it would be churlish to hold the fact that one of those newly-minted gamers grew up to become Varg Vikernes against it. It just doesn’t feel like a Middle Earth game, and that kills stone dead more or less the only reason to opt for MERP instead of just running core-rules-only Rolemaster.

The One Ring

Here is the real magic. Originally released in a handsome slipcase version with a player’s book, a book for the referee (called the Loremaster here), two nice big maps and a set of special dice, it’s also been rereleased recently in an updated and revised single-book version (presumably in part because of the high cost of reprinting the slipcase edition). I happen to own the slipcase version, and it’s absolutely gorgeously illustrated and presented; the company that actually has the tabletop games licence for the books (and who subcontracted the work out to Cubicle 7) is called Sophisticated Games, and this certainly fits the bill as far as that criterion is concerned.

The special dice are a mild concern, but they aren’t absolutely required to play. One of them is the Feat Die, which is rolled whenever a character attempts something worth a dice roll; it’s a D12 numbered 1-10, with the Eye of Sauron in the 11 spot and Gandalf’s personal rune in the 12 spot. If you roll the Eye of Sauron, it counts as a zero and something bad is likely to happen to you, whereas if you get Gandalf’s rune the task automatically succeeds, at least usually – otherwise the number you roll plus any numbers you get to add to it have to beat a target number to succeed at the task. The other dice – Success Dice – are six-siders, with 1-3 in outline and 4-6 filled in to aid quick counting (and to remind you that results of 1-3 are ignored when you are suffering from the Weary condition) and a little tengwar rune accompanying the “6” on each; for each point you have in an appropriate skill, you get to roll a six-sider along with the Feat Die and add the result to the total. The tengwar runes are helpful for assessing the magnitude of success – if you get one such rune then you may get a little bonus, if you get two you might get a substantial something – and are also used in the optional rules for Epic Feats, where the GM has the option to let you roll to accomplish something really, truly, amazingly unlikely but you only succeed if you roll the Gandalf rune on the Feat die and at least one tengwar rune on the Success Dice. (For flavour purposes, it is suggested that when rolling for characters who serve the Dark Lord – wittingly or unwittingly – the Eye of Sauron should be an auto-success for them and the Gandalf rune should be a setback for ’em.)

It is absolutely trivial to substitute in ordinary dice for these, but the special dice are quite cleverly designed – between the runes and the colouring, they are well-optimised to allow you to quickly eyeball a roll and see if you’ve got beyond the target number quickly. Moreover, the use of the runes helps capture the atmosphere of the books – and The One Ring really does go all-out to do precisely that.

Characters don’t so much level up as gain Wisdom and/or Valour; each increase in one of those simultaneously lets you pick some form of more concrete character advancement and also gains you additional respect from those who value the quality you decided to boost. Likewise, you have a “Hope” score to denote where your mental reserves are at and a “Shadow” trait to show how much your resolve has been shaken or undermined by the influence of the Dark Lord (whether this be due to ill acts on your part, or witnessing the works of evil, or simply being tainted by the Shadow’s influence in the world); if you end up in a situation where your Hope dips below your Shadow score, you end up with the wonderfully-named “Miserable” condition – which can also be the forerunner of a bout of madness if you end up rolling the Eye of Sauron whilst Miserable. Each bout of madness sends you further along the appropriate track (based on your Calling – your character class, in other words), so some characters will find themselves becoming greedier and greedier from the dragon-sickness, others will find their temper becoming shorter and shorter, and so on. Hope can also be used to give bonuses to rolls – spend a point of Hope on a roll, and you get to add the appropriate Attribute to it (thankfully, unlike in Numenera where spending points like this will almost always be wasted, you are allowed to wait to see what the roll result is before spending Hope) – and the party as a whole has a pool of Fellowship points you can dip into to replenish your Hope in a pinch. You can seek the approval of the majority of the party to take points from the Fellowship pool – or you can be all like We wants it, it’s our birthday! and grab the points anyway, getting yourself a dose of Shadow as a result of being a grabby piglet.

Similarly, when characters are exerting themselves a lot (for instance, in combat or on long journeys) and their Fatigue level exceeds their Endurance score, they become Weary, which has various effects – for instance, whilst travelling if party members become Weary it’s likely that the party will run into dangerous hazards. The journey mechanics in this are extremely well-explained and actually make this one of the few games which make me want to bother counting hexes on maps and tracking encumbrance levels (thankfully, the encumbrance system is quite simple), because of course the more of a burden you are carrying the faster you get Weary when travelling. (Frodo was unlucky enough to have a Loremaster who dicked him over on just how much encumbrance a single gold ring represented…) Between the rules for getting Weary and the hazards you can face, the game makes travelling through Middle Earth feel like a slow, desperate slog in particularly Shadow-blighted realms whilst allowing you to cut a fast pace in more gentle realms, and in general captures the feeling of the travelogue sections of the books remarkably well.

Moreover, when you take the Hope/Shadow/Miserable and Endurance/Fatigue/Weary mechanics together, they really get across the way Tolkien presented adventures in the books: process that are both physically and spiritually draining, which if you are lucky and wise you can emerge from with your spirit emboldened and enriched but which can equally leave a permanent taint on you that you can never quite get away from. (In particular, characters who have had bouts of madness will have gained a permanent point of Shadow; men, dwarves and hobbits who let their madness meters max out end up going off and dying alone at best, or become agents of the Shadow at worst, whilst elves who have the same happen to them despair of Middle Earth entirely and sail off to the West to get a Shadow-enema from the Valar.)

Another way in which the game captures the spirit of the books is in the structure of gameplay. In particular, you are encouraged to have significant talky encounters take place in an interestingly formalised manner that is reminiscent of the almost ritualistic way characters present themselves to strangers in the books; first the party decides whether to have a single spokesperson speak for them or whether they’ll all be talking, then a Tolerance level is set for the encounter in question, based on the Wisdom or Valour of the party in question and the Standing of its members amongst the people addressed. Run out of Tolerance with someone you’re negotiating with, and they’ll lose patience with the encounter and send you away at best. This encourages players to take care when negotiating, and in particular to avoid dragging conversations on interminably, and also is appropriate to the subtle emphasis Tolkien puts on manners and etiquette in the books.

Another aspect of how gameplay is structured is the division of the game into Adventuring and Fellowship phases. Borrowing an idea from Pendragon, the game assumes that most PCs at most go on one adventure per year and allows for a rest period (the Fellowship phase) in between adventures during which PCs can take various downtime actions.

This generational style of play is in keeping with the selection of time period for the game; the assumed start of campaign date is five years after the Battle of Five Armies at the end of The Hobbit, and Cubicle 7 intend to produce material to support play all the way to the end of the War of the Ring. This is more focused than MERP, which tried to support play from any time from the Second to Fourth Age, and also positions the player characters to usefully engage with major events of the saga. The setting covered in the core set consists of Mirkwood and the lands around Dale, Laketown, Beorn’s House and the Lonely Mountain; this is an area which is simultaneously familiar from The Hobbit but where we don’t know much about what went down in the locality during the War of the Ring, so whilst the PCs might not get to dump the One Ring into Mount Doom (unless the Loremaster decides to deviate from canon), their actions could still make the difference between this region standing strong against the depredations of Mordor or being reduced to wasteland.

Gorgeously packaged and illustrated, The One Ring is the BBC radio drama to MERP‘s Peter Jackson movie – it’s the only RPG adaptation I’ve seen that seems to have a remote hope of feeling like you are stepping into the books, and I can’t wait to give it a proper try.