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The One Ring RPG - Review

This review of The One Ring is about eight months late (it was my Christmas gift), but there are still useful things to be said on the subject.

The One Ring is a great antidote to the disease of player ego, because from the start it is abundantly clear that the player is not bigger than the setting. In fact, if the player isn’t interested in participating in the themes of Tolkien’s works and wants to play a standard mediaeval fantasy game where they amass vast power and treasure, this game won’t work for them.

That’s cool, there should be more games where a ‘this isn’t for everyone’ sticker is emblazoned on the front. In this case, whilst it might not appeal to a power player who is used to reaching level three in D&D and being pretty much invincible, it will appeal to everyone who either read Lord of the Rings or enjoyed Peter Jackson’s adaptations. I will not mention the Hobbit Trilogy here, those wounds have yet to heal.

My first experience in Middle Earth was Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP) , a long forgotten system for many that had its heyday in the 1980s. It had much to recommend it, but it was powered by Rolemaster, which had both boons and flaws. Rolemaster encounters are long, long affairs, with battles taking up to three quarters of an hour in some cases as the GM trawled through table after table. Perversely, I grew to enjoy such obsessive tableering, and the supplements for everywhere from Rhovanion to Lothlorien were amazing sources of lore and intricate detail.

One smart move that Free League have taken to begin with (and I am sure they will expand on this) is to narrow down player choice and to focus on part of Eriador. The player world exists roughly between the Shire and Laketown and the edges of the Misty Mountains. Gondor, Rohan, Mordor, Harad, Rhovanion and a host of other more distant locations are not featured yet. This is a good idea for a games system where travel and exploration are hard wired in - instead of letting players wander to the edges of the world, shorter journeys are encouraged and as a result the adventuring acquires more depth.

The power player has little to gain from this game, because whilst players are able to utilise special abilities and items, there is no spell casting. It is assumed that the only spell casters are beings such as Gandalf, and they are simply the Patrons (see below) of the party, not participants in adventures.

The game's mechanics are based on Free League's own D6 and D12 dice. Some players might dislike a game system where specialist dice are needed and there is always a way to improvise with standard D6 and D12s. The game's setting and atmosphere are incredibly immersive, with a strong emphasis on the dangers and beauty of the wilds of Middle-earth. The game's rules are easy to learn and understand; there is an artform to writing an accessible RPG book and it is one that few master unfortunately.

Free League does it very well, the layout of the book and the step by step process of explaining dice mechanics and character building is evidently done with the first time player in mind. If you aren’t massively immersed in Tolkien lore, don’t worry, the game is eminently playable thanks to the effort that Free League have gone to in structuring it.

The other thing to note is that it is a joy to behold, it contains simply stunning artwork that is more reminiscent of the movies than the original Alan Lee aesthetic from the books. However, it captures the beauty of Tolkien’s world and also the melancholy and the mounting dread of the ‘shadow’ that is returning to the world.

The One Ring RPG uses a unique set of rules that are based on the d20 system, but with several twists that make it feel like a completely different game. The game's core mechanics revolve around the "shadow" mechanic, which represents the corrupting influence of the One Ring. Characters in the game have a "shadow score" which increases as they spend time in the presence of the Ring or other powerful artifacts. A high shadow score can lead to corruption and madness, adding an interesting moral aspect to the game.

Following closely a core theme in the Lord of the Rings is the games mechanics of ‘weariness’ - the strain of facing the threat of Mordor and the knowledge that the world stands on the precipice is a huge burden for characters to carry. It is this weariness that sees Frodo eventually leave Middle Earth for Valinor at the end of the Lord of the Rings, unable to return to his old life in the Shire. It is this same strain of despair that engulfs Boromir and leads him to try to seize the ring of power, in the hope that it would bring salvation to Gondor.

Another unique aspect of the game's mechanics is the "journey" system, which simulates the long and treacherous journeys that are a staple of the Middle-earth setting. Players must plan their journeys carefully, taking into account things like weather, terrain, and supplies. Journeys can also be affected by random events, such as encounters with hostile creatures or unexpected obstacles.

This is something that has been lost in 5th Edition D&D, as the ordinariness of the characters has been replaced and PCs now resemble super heroes with swords. I like that so much thought has gone into this aspect of the core rules, and the idea that the journey itself is a key component of the game. Once again, this is a welcome antidote to the player experience that says ‘cut to the chase, I just want to kick some ass now’.

A nice aspect of the system is how much is devoted to character growth outside of the actual mechanics of campaigning. In the Fellowship phase of the character narrative, players are able to develop the characters, allow spiritual recovery to take place, set a duration and location (a month in Rivendell, for example). In the Fellowship phase special undertakings can occur, such as meeting a new patron or gathering rumours about the impending threat of the shadow. Again, this isn’t every RPG player’s cup of tea, and the pace of this phase involves a real commitment from the players to immerse themselves in Middle Earthisms.