Mini-Review: The One Ring

Licensed RPGs are a tricky thing. It’s not always easy to capture the spirit of a property in a format that’s enjoyable to roleplay. Particularly egregious failures tend to linger in memory – the 1984 release “Middle-earth Role Playing”, for example, had most high level player characters flinging thunderbolts with nary a care for Tolkien’s subtle, low-magic mythology. Cubicle 7’s take on the Lord of the Rings phenomenon is equally distinctive, but in a good way. In this game, journeys are arduous, evil is insidious, magic rarely seen but powerful, and companionship amongst friends a greater power still. This is as Tolkien as fantasy roleplaying gets, right down to the exclusive use of masculine pronouns throughout the game text. (Perhaps authenticity isn’t always desirable when adapting something 70 years old.)

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The system is experimental, not quite like anything I’ve played before. It’s structured around phases of adventure alternating with phases of respite, like Mouse Guard, but the adventuring side is a lot more freeform, with GMs mixing in the core activities of combat, journeys and encounters (social stuff) as they see fit. Around a solid dice-pool core resolution mechanic, there are a number of fiddly sub-systems and rules exceptions; to be honest, they’re not all hits, but that’s the price of experimentation. Whether you like The One Ring really depends on how much mechanical awkwardness you’re willing to overlook for the sake of the impressively immersive setting. Personally, I think that the stiltedness of encounters, uneven character advancement, and serious balance issues (some character options make whole stages of the game trivially easy) are less important than the fact that this game has a rule for dramatically taking off your helmet in a combat scene. Because that’s awesome.

The One Ring is designed for long-term campaign play. Many rules, such as the accumulation of physical or mental fatigue, or undertakings to complete in downtime, are only really relevant after you’ve been playing for a while. If you’re willing to make that investment, there are additional rewards to discover. The beautiful maps of Middle Earth, sold separately, are a delight to tramp all over, and escalating involvement with important characters of the setting enhances the feeling of immersion over time. Like the superlative movie trilogy, The One Ring requires no small commitment of time, but is certainly worth the effort if you have the bandwidth spare.

(I never review a game I haven’t played or run.  Check out https://michaelduxbury.com/category/reviews/ for more RPG reviews.)

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