No one can deny the influence that J.R.R. Tolkien has had on the fantasy genre. Many of the elements from his books have become genre tropes that dominated novels for decades. There are countless books that include Tolkien versions of elves, dwarves, and hobbits (though they might be called halflings, or little people, or some other non-copyrighted variation).
Tolkien-esque tropes also dominated fantasy roleplaying games. Dungeons & Dragons, the biggest game by far, incorporated most of those genre elements, and there have been many, many imitators since then.
And yet, despite the popularity of Tolkien’s writings, there haven’t been very many licensed roleplaying games through the years.
The first, and longest-running, was the Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP) game that was published from 1984 through 1999 by Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE). This game used their house system, Rolemaster, which was a poor fit for Middle Earth, but their success was based on the hunger of gamers for official Tolkien RPG products.
The next company to produce a game based in Middle Earth was Decipher. This was published in 2002 and was intended to capture renewed interest in Tolkien’s world from Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings. This was a short-lived game, with just seven published books over two years before the line was cancelled.
Which leads us to The One Ring Roleplaying Game, published by Cubicle 7. Originally published in 2011 as The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild, a revised core rulebook was released in 2014.
There is no doubt that The One Ring (a.k.a. TOR) is love letter to Middle Earth. Using rules developed specifically to support playing through the kinds of stories that Tolkien himself wrote, Cubicle 7 has managed to publish a game that actually feels like Middle Earth.
Mysterious Magic: Unlike the in-your-face magic of games like D&D, magic in Middle Earth is subtle and mysterious. A common question by new players of the game is “Where is the magic-section of the rulebook?” but magic is embedded in the various races and cultures. It’s internal, rather than external. There are no rules for playing Gandalf or others of his ilk, as player characters are intended to reflect special individuals caught up in grand events, in the vein of Bilbo and Frodo, Boromir and Faramir, Gimli and Legolas.
Emotional Tone: Characters in The One Ring are more than just a collection of attributes and skills. Middle Earth can be a dark place, and this often takes an emotional toll on its heroes. Hope and despair are key thematic elements in the games, and this is reflected in a character’s Hope score, which can be used to keep the character moving when faced with adversity and shadow.
Fellowship: A group of player characters in The One Ring are more than just a collection of adventurers who happen to travel together. The characters are expected to form a Fellowship, which represents friendship, loyalty, and trust. Their Fellowship score provides points that can be used to regain Hope (turning to your friends in times of need can help you overcome despair), and special abilities that the party can use to overcome adversity.
Journeys: Much of Tolkien’s stories involve great travel by the books protagonists. Many games gloss over travel, perhaps simply including a random encounter chart or something similar. But travel is an essential part of any game set in Middle Earth, and so they developed a set of rules to make travel a more interesting part of the adventure. It’s not just the destination that’s important in The One Ring, it’s also the journey.
Corruption: The forces of darkness don’t rely solely on physical threats. Both Boromir and King Theoden found themselves under the influence of Shadow at various points in The Lord of the Rings, and the rules reflect how this can affect the player characters. From the book, “Adventurers accumulate Shadow points to represent the growing burden of grief, doubt, weariness and self-interest that comes to rest on the hearts and minds of those who oppose the Shadow.”
Since its release, there have been a number of fantastic sourcebooks published by Cubicle 7 for this game.
- Ruins of the North: A collection of six great adventures for the game.
- Adventurer’s Companion: New cultures and callings, and expansions to some areas of the game.
- Horse-Lords of Rohan: Expands the game to include a new region that is quite different from those in the North.
- Erebor: The Lonely Mountain: Expands the game into this region of Middle Earth.
- Rivendell: A guide to the people and places of this area in Middle Earth.
- Tales from Wilderland: A collection of seven fantastic adventures.
- The Darkening of Mirkwood: A thirty-year campaign that starts in 2947 with the first hints of the returning shadow and ends in 2977 with the death of King Bard. This is an epic book that provides an entire campaign for the players to run through.
- The Heart of the Wild: A guide to Mirkwood and the Vales of Anduin.
And there are other great products, such as custom dice, a Loremaster’s Screen, map collections, etc.
There are few games that work so well capturing the themes, tone, and experience of an existing property like The One Ring does with Middle Earth and Tolkien’s stories. Everything, from the rules, to the art, to the design all contribute to make a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Luckily, Cubicle 7 continues to support The One Ring with new products. It’s a fantastic game, and one that I will continue to buy as long as they keep putting out quality material for it.
Have you played The One Ring, or any of the other Middle Earth-based RPGs? Which one was your favorite? What is your TOR campaign like? Tell us about it in the comments.