The Class of Cultures
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
The Geek Speaks – RPG Review The One Ring So... I am a gamer, and my favorite type of games are the ones known as Role Playing Games (condensed to RPG’s from now own to spare my fingers). I started with Dungeons& Dragons, the Basic Red Box.
I was a kid at the time and I thought that you were supposed to play the basic game first, and then you moved on to Advanced D&D later. It wasn't until many years later that I discovered the different lines that TSR was producing, Basic and Advanced. Oh, the revelation I felt when I discovered that you could play as an Elf, AND a Wizard! That was when I was a child and I have not stopped playing, and collecting, since. I did abandon D&D though when Shadowrun came out. And that became my go-to game for decades, and yes, I will be discussing that at a later date. Playing an RPG as kinda like learning a martial art. Once you start, you want to try them all. L5R, Eclipse Phase, Star Wars, all the WoD games, Dresden Files and that is just what I see looking around from where I am sitting. These have been all massively fun, and I would love to comment on them all. But for now, I have will focus on this singular discussion. A discussion of...Middle Earth. The game...”The One Ring”.
I have played all three of the official Lord of the Rings games. The granddaddy of them all is..was, “Middle Earth Role Playing”, MERP for short. There was no more comprehensive setting for any game before or since. I think they must have invented, and made a matching table for, every square inch of Arda. The problem with it was the game was essentially D&D in Middle Earth. You could be a wizard and throw lightning bolts in the game. This rubbed some people the wrong way. The next attempt was simply called the “Lord of the Rings Role Playing Game”. This came out around the turn of the century and was seen as a tie-in with the films. It’s setting was actually more accurate to the books than MERP, with a lot of art from the movies. No fireball wielding wizards and it worked with a classic race + class system. A good attempt, but its main failing was feeling rushed. While the 2d6 mechanics were good (won an award and everything), the rules still felt really clunky. With a number of them scattered about the book with many people manufacturing house rules to fix it up. That brings us to today and the current license holder, Cubical 7, a British company...which seems strangely apropos. Their game is called “The One Ring” and this is intended as a review of said game. If you wish to skip all my writing and beat to the chase, well here you go. It’s great!
And that's all I need to say about that.
Now clearly I have a bit of a bias here. But a review is meant to give my opinion, and this is to me the clear winner of the Tolkien based RPG’s. If you really want to know more and hear why I love it so much, please continue reading as I embarrass myself with my phenomenal typing skills.
When I tell people about this game, I say it has the most grounded mechanics I have encountered. What I mean by that is the actual how’s of the game; dice rolling, combat, and all the other rules of play, are truly based on the setting. In many RPG’s there is a great setting, and the rules are there to let you interact with it. How the rules work is often done for game-play and balance, and how well the mechanics reflect the setting is secondary. For example, D&D is a D20 system. Most attempts require you to roll a single d20, and hope you roll high enough. Largely luck based, but certain tasks will have better odds for each character. What makes the player's character work is based more on level than the dice. You could argue that levels don’t have a lot to do with sword and sorcery fantasy, but it works for D&D. Some would argue, and have, that Pathfinder has too many rules and the mechanics actually get in the way. A response to this would be the Fate system, where the mechanics are dedicated to telling a story as opposed to showing how powerful a character is. But even that could be argued to be so open and free-form that none of the settings flavor has any impact on the rules. All that was a way to make a small point. I feel that the One Ring got a great balance between the “crunch” and the “storytelling”. And now on the verge of getting boring, let me discuss the game. This is not going to be a step by step review how the mechanics work. If you want to learn all about that, there have been plenty of fine reviews on other sites that do just that, such as this comprehensive one here at RPG.net. I want to focus on what I feel makes this game fun.
The One Ring is not a game about killing monsters and stealing their treasure, like another game with underground lizards. It is a game about Culture, not Classes.
This is a true highlight for me about this game. At character creation, you do not have the classic race + class combo. Quite a few people assume that you can play an elf or hobbit, then ask what the classes are. When introducing the game, the most often question I get asked is, “What are the classes.” Not an unreasonable question since even skill-based games tend to have a type of character you create, like a Decker or Shaman in Shadowrun. But The One Ring, TOR from now on, instead just has Culture. When making a new character, the first and most important choice is your Culture. Culture decides everything. It’s your starting skills, the weapons you will be trained in, your attributes, most of your traits and all of your special abilities. So it is, in a way, race and class rolled into one. But the game itself revolves around the Cultures of the game. Instead of going to a bar and getting hired to kill some monster, here you are working to help the disparate peoples of the different cultures survive. An Elf from Mirkwood could be asked to look into what is haunting the Woodmen down south. Or maybe the fellowship (what the game call’s parties) needs to look into wither or not people from Laketown are the ones interfering with events under the mountain.
Each culture represents a region on the map, and the map is tres important. As you know, having read Lord of the Rings of course, the journey is a large part of the story. TOR reflects that with journeys being about a third of the game. Travel from A to B is not just a measure of time with some random monster rolls. Instead, every member of the party has an active role to play in assuring a successful arrival at the intended destination. Throughout the trip, everybody continually makes tests based on terrain and time of year, leading to a random chance for an event to pop up. These can be a whole adventure in of themselves or a simple as “Somethings wrong. (Skill Roll) Aaaand, nothing happened.” This leads to making longer journeys to be a big decision for the players to make with assuring they have all the roles covered and plenty of supplies. While a smaller ground can slip by unnoticed better, a larger group will draw more attention while making themselves better prepared. But where you are and where you are going is even more important. And since this is Middle Earth, the maps are key. And scattered about the maps are our various Cultures. In addition to giving your PC there skills and abilities, your choice of Culture reflects upon your geography.
Elf of Mirkwood, you live in the forest of Mirkwood. A dangerous place to travel lightly and mystery to all.
Man of Dale, you live in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain. Surviving in the remains of the desolation of Smaug.
Woodman of Mirkwood, Dwarf of Ereibor, where you are from matters. It dictates what events affect you and yours while determining how difficult, and to what lengths are required, it is to travel to another location. Need to go down the Elf Path to speak with Beorn? Do you have a Mirkwood Elf in the party? Do you have to Elf kings permission? Need to travel down the Dusky River? What is your relationship with the Woodmen?
Just as a side note, Hobbits don’t seem to be bound by these restrictions since they seem to just be here or there anyway. Weirdos.
What makes TOR stand out in this area though is that in addition to just geography, the abilities that are unique to each Culture effect the game mechanics differently. The Woodmen all are excellent on Journeys and make good hunters. While the Beornings will be good at intimidating others and becoming masters of the Great Spear. In fact, the choice of Cultural weapon skills can determine the style of fighting you will engage in. In the group I run, the “archer” is most definitely the Mirkwood Elf. He took all the Rewards and powers (called Virtues in the game) that enhance archery. Does this mean Elves make the best archers? They can, but the Men of Dale have some powerful ranged Virtues and the people of Esgeroth produce some of the finest archers as well. The differences are a bit more subtle. Dale archers specialize in the Great Bow and get Virtues and Rewards that do major damage while the Elves specialize in the Short Bow while getting abilities that make them more accurate and fast. And this makes sense seeing as how the Elves fight from the trees while the Bardings (what the Dalelanders call themselves) tend to fight in open plains. Combat in the game is also derived from your Cultural selections. Just like on journeys, everybody takes a role in the fight. But instead of a prescribed role, everyone picks their mental approach to combat. Essentially how aggressive is each participate going to be. Get right in the enemy's face or hold back and keep yourself safe over hitting your foe. Simply put, the more aggressive you are, the greater your chance to hit while giving your opponent an equal chance to hit you. Really want to kill that Ork, go get ‘em. Feeling weary at the moment, cover your ass while stabbing at that Urik. This here is one of my favorite parts of the game. The players dictate the flow of combat. The PC’s have a whole list of options, abilities and special rolls to make to enhance their battle. (Singing anyone!) While the NPC’s have separate and distinct powers, the players decide who is playing it safe and who is issuing the most dakka. There is a point-counter-point feel going on here where the enemies have abilities to really mess with our heroes while the PC’s can work together for survival and victory. An example of this could be the Denizen of the Dark ability that the enemies have. While in darkness, certain creatures get a double bonus to favored skills. For some of these monsters, this means that they will pretty much never miss in a fight. This means the heroes have to work on not only defeating the foe, but assuring that their own do not get taken out in the process. Either through Inspiring everybody with song and speeches, or Challenging a particular foe with intimidation or to one-on-one combat. It is this group dynamic along with things like the Fellowship Pool that lets a tight group overcome numerous, challenging enemies. It also helps to make battle feels threatening. When even a relatively small group of goblins can score some wounds, that makes truly fearsome foes like the Nazgul make an experienced party quail in the face of it. And the villains, of course, are presented as the Anti-Culture. They don’t really have a Culture of their own since they are not part of a homogeneous group. The Orcs have tribes, but they still don’t really work together all that well. And the stated goal of the Enemy is the destruction of the Cultures of the Free Peoples. That’s you by the way. So what you are fighting for is often larger than getting you next cool piece of gear. Gear that was already provided to you by, yup, your Culture. The last thing I want to mention is, again, the point I always bring up when describing this game. And that is how I feel that no other game has it’s core mechanics so ground into the setting. And for a lot of people, in Middle Earth, this is how magic is treated.
The problem with good ‘ol MERP was that it was mechanically, D&D. You could play a wizard and throw fireballs. The “Lord of the Rings” RPG curtailed that, but did let you play a sage who studied under a wizard. I feel that what TOR truly gets right is how it treats spellcasting. It doesn't. First off, there is endless debate on what magic actually is. And of course I won't be able to answer that here. Each author defines magic as what they need it to be. In this context, the question is what does Tolkien want magic to be. The answer is: I don't know, since I am not an expert into the mind of J.R.R. Without going into what I feel is how Middle Earth magic works, I will point out what I think is what makes it stand out from the rest. Magic is natural. In most setting, magic represents the supernatural. It’s an outside force or some energy to be manipulated. In Arda, magic is a part of the world. The world was sung into existence, and magic was a part of that. With enough skill you can create something of such quality that it becomes...magic. Light can be contained in an object because that is how light works here. The game honors that by having magic be one of the abilities that a Culture can learn. Yes, Elves can learn “Elf Magic”. But the others cast their spells, and in their own way. Beornings can dream as bears. The Hobbits can truly disappear. And the Dunedain get glimpses of things to come. I love how that magic is, once again, based on your Culture. Making it unique to you and where you come from. The other part of magic in Arda is Sorcery. Players don’t get to use this, but the enemies do. And it’s scary. The PC’s always risking gaining some Shadow when facing off against sorcery, and in addition, will suffer other stated effects as well. Like the Great Spiders can cast a Holding Spell to prevent a hero from attacking. The dread Nazgul can cast a Shadow of Fear that will make the character do whatever the Ringwraith desires out of sheer terror.
And the reasons for this is that Sorcery is a perversion of nature. It requires Hate to cast and always causes Shadow. That is because, while Magic is a part of the natural world, Sorcery is disrupting that world with the “supernatural”. In essence, channelling the will and power of
Morgoth. (Read the Silmarillion)
And there we have my diatribe on Culture. I trust I did not bore you, and maybe I inspired you a little. This is still my favorite game set in Tolkien’s world and it reflects that world wonderfully. The biggest flaw with the game is that if you or any of your players are not into the setting that much, I would not recommended it. If you are into Role Playing Games, I hope you will give this game a look. If you already play D&D, there is a version of TOR out there called Adventures in Middle Earth. It is literally TOR, but using the rules for 5E D&D. If that last sentence did not make much sense to you I welcome you to the wonderful world of RPG’s. Head to your nearest game store and ask about the fun. Your imagination will thank you.
"Culture" word count: 17
All of the original The One Ring art is by Jon Hodgson. Very much worth a look.
Music Note: While this took a long time to write, I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin while writing it. I Recently got the boxed set of all their studio albums. And while they might have stolen some songs, I still never grew out of the "discovering Zep" phase. They did set the standard of metal being all about Lord of the Rings and Vikings after all.