Mention Tolkien to a fantasy fan and they’ll have several things spring to mind instantly, two of which will be The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. There’s no two ways about it, Professor Tolkien’s Middle Earth universe remains, to this day, one of the most influential, far-reaching, and sometimes end-all-be-all fantasy settings that has arguably been the catalyst of the genre’s expanse over the years, as well as that of the high-flying novels and shows we’re getting today.
But with those two aforementioned and instantly recognizable pillars of Tolkien’s work comes a sad aspect: the fact that there’s so much more to it! From the Silmarillion to Unfinished Tales and the myriad other materials seeping out of the Lord of the Rings and the times that came before it, there’s comparatively little of it known to the audience at large, and even less being explored in video and/or role-playing game fashion.
Thus, I’ve chosen The One Ring for this Role-Playing Gems Chapter, a Tolkien-esque game published by Cubicle 7 and designed by Francesco Nepitello, and one that’s been around for quite a few years but doesn’t seem to garner as much attention as other systems or settings out there today.
The reasons for me bringing this to the fore? Read on, find out what this is all about, keep it safe, but by no means secret!
1. A story between stories.
The most fancy-tickling, eye-catching thing about TOR is its contribution to the timeline. All of the adventures therein take place 5 years after the events of The Hobbit, in a time of uncertainty that fans of the saga will know little about. More to the point, it’s always easier to craft your own legend within a more permissive environment than have to weave in and out of major occurrences during the main or prequel timeline.
And if you throw the movies into that it just gets confusing…
Get ready to be thrust into a time of unrest, where Smaug has been vanquished and the echoes of the Battle of the Five Armies have died down, but the far-reaching consequences of those events still linger around Wilderland, the area bordered by the Misty Mountains, Erebor, and Rohan.
Play multiple races of the times, like Men of the North, Dunlendings, Woodland Elves, Horse Lords, Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, with dozens of archetypes for each race offering a host of possibilities for even the most nitpicky of players to revel in.
Carve your own name into the “Tolkienverse” and discover a different facet of it, not entirely removed from the big names of the past and future, but one where those are little more than guides who point you in the direction of your next adventure…
2. Ease of use
Many systems out there pride themselves in coming up with zounds of dice rolls depending upon tables, charts, and FAQs in order to - as realistically as possible - determine the outcome of a social encounter, a battle, or simply a trek through the forest. TOR deals away with all the unnecessary stuffiness of it all, using a neat Xd6+1d12 pool to resolve all of its rolls, where the X is the level a character has in any given skill. And of course there’s the ever-present critical hit/miss mechanism in there, with a rather thematic twist I’ll let you find out on your own as you get deeper into the various published campaigns…
Social interactions are a breeze and combat flows by swiftly, yet without hit points, but rather a wounded/not wounded mechanism that not only makes sense, but deals away with the constant math behind taking 25 damage with 5 ongoing damage and a ¼ chance of taking 3 more each turn. There’s also a very conceptual battle tactic option affixed there, where heroes can take an attacking stance or a more reserved, ranged one, depending on the various circumstances that may arise. This, coupled with the endurance mechanism that comes into play in both battles as well as travels makes for more of the role-playing and less of the roll-playing-and-bumbling-through-the-rules-ness that can mar an explosive encounter by halting it right at its peak.
3. The Fellowship Phase
There’s always something new and exciting you’re looking for in a new system, and TOR did exactly what was needed with the above game phase. The core of the game action is divided into 2 main aspects: Adventuring and Fellowship. While the first one deals in the travels (which are also masterfully done), encounters, battles, and events that the heroes may come across en-route to their destination, it’s the Fellowship Phase where the system truly shines.
It’s here that the heroes can rest, recuperate, take on new challenges, share a mug of the Green Dragon’s finest ale, or simply lounge around the fire debating what their next course of action will be. This is a very on-point portrayal of the passage of both short as well as long periods of time, bringing to the fore the sometimes pivotal, campsite-like pauses in Tolkien’s narrative, where the heroes assess their situation, talk about future endeavours or past ones, light up their pipes, wake up some long-dormant foe or simply indulge in that oh-so-important second breakfast.
4. Content upon content
The folks at Cubicle 7 have outdone themselves by coming out with not only beautifully-illustrated books (with even John Howe penning some of his finest work yet), but ones that are chock-full of content intended to enrich the fairly decent offering that the Core Book comes with. Havens like Laketown, Erebor, Thranduil’s Halls, and Rivendell are counterbalanced by the creepy crawlies that the heroes might come across in Mirkwood, with an entire book devoted to the ancient forest alone.
Couple that with The Horse Lords of Rohan, Ruins of the North, and the new Riddermark book that’s just been announced, and you’re faced with a plethora of options, many of which haven’t made it mainstream-wise as prominently as they deserve (trust me, you’ll be convinced of that latter statement in no time flat), coupled with their respective location maps and adventure hooks galore, and even a stand-alone card game that doubles as event-catalyst for the game itself.
Let’s see the players reach the edge of the map and pose that oh-so-snarky “but what lies beyond?” question now!
All in all, this game hits all the right notes with me, firing on all of the role-playing pistons I’m looking for in an experience such as this, and I hope you can find some of that within it if you choose to pick it up thanks to this short overview.
Then again, if you’re already playing, we look forward to hearing your take on it, as well as sharing a tall tale around the fire as to your exploits within it - on either side of the gaming table.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be going on an adventure!
Writer, gamer, and - provided he's got the time for it - loving husband, Costin does not rule out sacrifices to the Great Old Ones in order to get into the gaming industry. He's been role-playing for the better part of 6 years, but has been a joker, gamer and storyteller for as long as he can remember.
His greatest pride is once improvising a 4-way argument between a grave digger, a dyslexic man, an adopted child and a sheep, all by himself. That moment is also the closest he's ever come to giving himself a role-playing aneurysm... thus far.
He's been dabbling in plenty of writing ventures lately, and you can find him hanging his words around the OhBe Wandering hangout page on Facebook.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.