Mucking Around in Middle Earth: The One Ring RPG

Saturday night, I gathered together a group of friends to try out the new The One Ring RPG from Cubicle 7. Over the past couple of weeks, we had created characters, and I had produced a couple of cheat sheets, so when the time came, we were ready to sit down and play through the introductory adventure included in the game.

For those unfamiliar with The One Ring RPG, it’s the latest roleplaying game based on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. It comes in a wonderful set of two books ((One for players and one for Loremasters, the game’s special name for GM.)), two maps ((Again, one for players and one for Loremasters.)), and a set of the special dice ((A d12 and 6d6, each with special markings to be used for system quirks.)) needed for the game in an attractive slipcase. It uses a new system developed by Italian game designer Francesco Nepitello that is very straightforward, but has a number of interesting little twists to it that give it surprising depth while not slowing down play. The books and maps are beautiful, as might be expected.

We had a pretty good time, and really enjoyed the game. The rules do a good job of evoking the feel of the world, and reinforcing the kinds of things one sees in the source material. The adventure was paced nicely to wrap up in a single session and offered a sampling of pretty much everything the game has to offer.

For characters, we had a Barding slayer, a Barding treasure-seeker ((Brother and sister.)), a Woodman wanderer, and a Wood-Elf warder. Character creation is a simple templated system: you choose your culture, choose your background, choose your motivation, and then spread around a few discretionary points. It runs quite quickly once you figure out where everything is in the books and how it fits together, but this is a stumbling block that I’ll get to a little later.

There is an actual subsystem for handling the party as a party – what the rules call a Company. It gives the characters each a job to do in the journey system, provides a pool of points to help the characters out, and defines who your most important relationship is with in the group. That was how we started the game, as the characters had been developed independently: defining the Company and fleshing out who the characters were, how they had met, and why they were together.

I’m not going to talk too much about the adventure itself, to avoid spoilers, but here are some general observations:

  • Combat is wonderful. It is fast, cinematic, and deadly. There is a sense of real tactical choice and danger, despite the fact that it doesn’t use minis or battlemaps or anything like that. It abstracts positioning by using stances, where each character decides if they’re fighting on the front line or hanging back and using a missile weapon or something in between. Initiative, chance to hit, and chance to be hit are all determined by choice of stance, and the Loremaster just throws the monsters at the appropriate combatant. It works very nicely, and we all loved it.
  • There is an Encounter system, which is somewhat similar to skill challenges in D&D. It’s used specifically to handle social situations where the characters might or might not impress or offend a person or group. It works fine, but I found the scenes ran just as smoothly through straight roleplaying, taking into account the prejudices of the other party, without making a lot of rolls. I can see mixing it up a bit during ongoing play, but recommend not getting too slaved to the dice rolling.
  • The journey system works well, but it met some resistance in play. Part of this is the fact that I’m not experienced in running it cleanly, so it felt awkward, and part of it is that the roles for the journey were called out in other parts of the game for special tasks. The roles and journey system are there specifically to provide spotlight moments for different characters and to have everyone in the Company contribute to success ((Also to avoid everyone in the group rolling for every single challenge faced by the Company.)), but the rigidity of the roles felt artificial. Running this adventure a second time, I would handle the non-journey system invocation of the journey roles differently, asking who was doing what at a given moment, then asking for the roll.
  • I was very pleased with how easy it was to mix combat with other types of action – such as holding off an attack while escaping. I can’t say too much more about that without spoilers, so…
    …when escaping the cellar while pursued by the Marsh Dwellers, it was easy to switch back and forth between characters involved in different aspects of the escape – fighting off the Marsh Dwellers, hauling the rescued Dwarves, acting as scout or guard, etc. It flowed very nicely, and created a great sense of desperation and urgency.
  • We only had the one set of special dice for the game, and it got a little annoying to share them. According to the Cubicle 7 forums, there will be dice available without buying the rulebooks in the next couple of months, and I plan on picking up a couple of extra sets ((What can I say? I love dice!)), but it was easy enough to use regular d12s and d6s.

There is one big problem with the game, though: the rulebooks are not well-organized. First off, they are split between an Adventurer’s book and a Loremaster’s book, and the split is not clean. As Loremaster, I need to look in both books to run combat, because combat is asymmetrical between PC and monster. The indices in the books are not true indices, but instead just an alphabetical listing of headings. The character creation leads you right through the process very nicely, except for one piece – Virtues and Rewards – which requires you to jump two chapters ahead to find the details. Without a page reference.

Now, the rules are not all that complicated, but it’s still a big stumbling block for the first few sessions, when the players and GM are having to look up a lot of stuff. The lack of proper index and the split between two books makes finding a specific rule mainly a matter of random chance, and that just slows the game down. A lot.

That said, the game ran fairly smoothly, and worked pretty well. We had enough fun that the players want to try another adventure in the system, following on one of the obvious next steps from the intro adventure. I’ve said okay, and given them the go-ahead to revamp their characters based on what we saw during play this time. We may even add a couple of players. And it means I get to figure out how to build an adventure in the system.

But that won’t happen until after I get back from Ireland.