There’s been some talk about one or more of the other players taking over GM duties from me from time to time (if only it works this time!), as I’m inundated with a 10-month old, dissertation work, new part time work at a local university, and projects that I hope will come to fruition this summer. (Can you say Kickstarter? And spies..?)

One of the players was thinking of running a fantasy campaign, but we’re all pretty united in not liking d20 — either Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder. We also are serious anti-GURPers. I figured I’d have a look at The One Ring by Cubicle 7 for system ideas. And hence, this review…

First off, I can only speak to the pdf version, but judging from the production values of the files, the books are probably nicely done. I understand it’s two hardcovers in a slipcase, plus two maps. The books and maps are done from the proofs for the pdf version of the game, not some lame scan, so the quality of the maps is tremendous — you can zoom in tight and have good quality  graphics. The books are nicely done, full-color pages with decent artwork. The files are also well optimized, so there’s not a lot of the lag time in getting legible views when turning pages on the iPad, unlike Margaret Weis’ Leverage or Smallville files, which are disastrously slow in loading.

The game mechanics are delightfully easy. Roll a d12 plus a number of d6 equal to your skill. You can use “hope points” to add attribute dice. Get a 6 and you succeed on the skill dice. Get a 12 on the d12 and good things happen to you, 11 and something untoward happens, whether you succeed or not. (On the game box set, the dice are modified — the d12 as an Eye of Sauron for the 11, a Rune of Gandalf on the 12; the d6 as another rune to indicate success.) You try to beat a target number between 10 and 20 (for the most part.) Combat works not with the traditional initiative, but rather how you position yourself on the battlefield — more on that in a moment.

The Adventurer’s Book is the character creation/player handbook. It has most of the rules in it. Your characters are chosen less by the class/race of traditional fantasy games, that by a culture — the Beorning, Dwarves of Lonely Mountain, Elves of Mirkwood, Woodmen of the Wilderland or Bardings for humans. Your culture gives you “blessings” and your skill packages are driven by the same, although you can tailor the character for their own background, etc. There are only three attributes: Body, Heart, Wits. Hope points work like the tradional hero/plot/fate points in most games, but as they drop you can start to pick up “corruption”…if you do bad things, or questionable things from a cultural standpont, you can start to feel the draw of the Evil One. Characters can be Weary, Miserable, or Wounded and this effects how well they can function.

The Loremaster’s Book is the GM book and much of it is given up to the how and whys of running a game — how to set up encounters, the differences between combat and other elements of play. It deals with the mechanics of the corruption mechanic, gives examples of the adversaries you could run into, and a lot of material on the world of Middle Earth post-The Hobbit, but pre-Lord of the Rings.

It’s an interesting period to set the game — it’s a point in the Tolkien settling that is hazily defined and leaves a lot of room for adventuring and heroics without interrupting the upcoming action of LOTR. In general, games set in Middle Earth are either bogged down by the pedantic, heavy detail of the books. It’s great for setting depth, but it can overwhelm play. The One Ring gives you enough to know what is going on, what the area focused on is like, but leaves the heavy history to Tolkien’s works. If you need more detail, crack open the applicable novel.

Tolkien’s universe is less about killing the monster and stealing the treasure than the usual fantasy game. The McGuffin of Smaug aside, much of The Hobbit is about getting there, meeting other people and dangers on the road, and how these encounters change you for better or worse. TOR does a good job of emulating this feel, much more so than any iteration prior to it. Allegedly, C7 will be putting out another three “core” sets that cover The Lord of the Rings, expanding the setting to cover other races, events, locations.

The books and maps are gorgeous and style is definitely a 5 out of 5. The mechanics are light, but not too much so, and are designed to drive role playing, and to emulate the flavor of Middle Earth — I think successfully. Substance is 4 out of 5, more because they had to skimp on a lot of the background material to keep the game focused and playable. It’s worth a buy — especially for the under $30 price for the pdf. (The box set is $60.)