Thursday, November 3, 2011

The One Ring: A Short Critique

As already stated here, I didn't have much hope for The One Ring, yet another Middle-Earth based rpg published after the demise of ICE. I've made a few posts on this here blog about the few sessions of MERP I've run recently; I like the system, it's Middle-Earth and it's deadly and dark. After re-reading LotR yet again for the 50th time last month, I can honestly say MERP does a really good job of capturing the utter futility inherent in the environment. Heroes are born, not made, which is probably why a lot of people dislike adventuring in Tolkien's world...unless the DM goes out of his way to make the PCs important, they aren't and never will be. Published worlds are at a disadvantage because of this fact. Any published world, I think, suffers from this problem. Even Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, initially "homebrew" settings (I'll really never understand why this term is used disparagingly when compared to published settings as unless the setting has a literary base, they all share the same origins) have developed into comprehensive worlds filled with characters, history, locations and gods. It's hard for a PC to fit into these without either altering the world or just dealing with being a peon. So, to reiterate, I don't think Middle-Earth is any different in this regard, when compared to ANY published world. Perhaps the background pushes the action more due to the history being very detailed, but people will bitch just as much about changing Aragorn as they will Elminster (probably more).

SO ALL THAT SAID, what about The One Ring? First of all, the presentation is nice. Very nice. The slipcover contains two books (Adventurer's Book, Loremaster's Book), two maps (both of NW Middle-Earth, one with a hex grid superimposed over top) and some dice. The dice aren't that special, although there is a 12-sider with the Eye of Sauron and a a glyph for Gandalf. It's essentially a d10 that allows for what boils down to special successes and failures (you can figure out which is which). Overall, the appearance of the game is top-notch and the production value is fantastic. The books feature mostly drab colors that evoke the proper feeling expected of the environment. The artwork reminded me of the new Dragon Warriors rpg (out-of-print already, yeesh), which isn't surprising as it was the same artist. Enough of this, you get the point: presentation is an A+.

What about the actual game? Well, I haven't played it yet, but honestly I don't think I ever will. The system reminds me somewhat of Tri-Stat with a bunch of skills thrown in. I feel much like I did when first reading 4th Edition D&D, that I couldn't figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing with this game. There are a lot of mechanical systems in place setup to "force" a character into a certain way of play. I don't like that sort of stuff, others might, but to me background systems in rpgs is overrated. We already know how Tolkien's dwarves act, there's no need for mechanics to encourage the stereotypes. The skill resolution system is nothing new, a basic die-pool that requires the included dice. Except there are a lot more factors involved, like being Weary or spending Hope, all new names for old concepts. It's obvious that the naming conventions used are specifically to, again, encourage the proper tone in the game. I can appreciate that but it doesn't do much for me. Blah blah blah, I don't like it. It's not a terrible system, but it's not ground-breaking, either. I find no compelling reason to use this game over something like the Star Wars d6 conversion I did a couple months ago. Die-pool systems are good, die-pool systems that require special dice are annoying. There are a lot of reasons to like it, but all those don't add up to a good game, in my opinion.

Oddly enough, I think The One Ring is worth the money because reading the rules provides plenty of ideas on how to run a Middle-Earth game, but I wouldn't run a game using those rules. My suggestion is to buy the game, read it, use the maps and concepts, but dump all the extraneous crap that tries to turn a game into an exercise in literary analysis. And I suppose that's exactly why I dislike the game given my approach to rpgs. I don't want to recreate Tolkien, or anything at all, I merely want to kill orcs and find treasure. Games that try to accurately recreate stories already told are doomed to fail unless they alter some aspect to encourage PC importance. Trying to achieve both (remain faithful to the source yet have PCs in the forefront of the action) almost always result in a failed attempt for both. The One Ring is like plenty of other games that came before: a valiant effort that falls short. This is through no fault of the writer, I think, but instead a fault of the incongruous nature of using published works as rpgs settings.

To sum up, buy The One Ring, but don't pay full retail. Amazon has it for $38, the maps alone are worth $15 - $20, and the concepts within are valuable. As a game, I dislike it. But I'm also a crotchety wargamer, so those with more delicate sensibilities might find it just what they need.


  1. I am glad that you went with MERP, my bitching aside. The more I read the rules, the more I like its approach.

    I think trying to have an RPG be a "literary emulator" is in general a terrible idea outside of using the setting dress and a few mechanical changes.

  2. I bought it from FRPGames for a bit more, but less than retail and I agree with your assessment totally. The game is pretty, the rules are too complicated. I play lotro too and thought that I could mesh some of the ideas together, and yes, that could happen. But the deeper I looked into the game, the more I just wanted to run LL/AEC. Too many phases, too much cross-referencing to do anything, although the combat is quite simple. In the end, I am sticking with the oldschool.