The Maturing of The One Ring - Rivendell

Posted by IanWilliams at 6:03 PM on Dec 6, 2014

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I don't post much here. I'm a bad blogger. But I'm going to fire this up again in the next few days for something which is, compared to my last few posts oh so long ago, fairly trivial. Which is all good by me, since trivial means I'm having fun.

What's moved me is The One Ring, the pen and paper RPG for Tolkien's world put out by Cubicle 7. I'll spare the intro except to say that the tabletop RPGs put out for the license historically have been (and I'm being generous here) a little at odds with the spirit of Middle-earth as Tolkien imagined.

This wasn't really the fault of the creators of the two prior systems, MERP and Decipher's The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game. They came around at a time when design goals were different and it was both fine and good to plug a generic rules system into a setting. Decipher did better than MERP in this regard, but it was still lacking, while MERP put out remarkably in-depth setting books attached to a slightly stripped down Rolemaster, an explicitly generic fantasy system.

The One Ring is different. Every rule in the game has been very explicitly inspired by a piece of M-E fiction. It plays in an almost board game-esque fashion; by that I mean that there are distinct moves and phases to the game. This enhances the fiction, rather than detracts from it, by making each one of those moves and phases feel momentous. It's no surprise that the designer, Francesco Nepitello, is both a board game designer and inspired by the games of Greg Stafford, a man who also liked those deep dives into rules as a means of emphasizing specific actions in play.

This isn't really a review of TOR, though. It's not even really a review at all, even though it's going to read like one. TOR recently put out a new supplement called Rivendell. It opens up the game to Eriador and the titular vale of the elves. It also adds a lot of new rules which are elegant and mature.

I keep coming back to the word mature when I describe the book. It's the work of a team who have thought about every nook and cranny of where the rules came from and where they're going. They're remarkably well-thought out and clever, expressing the feel of M-E through hard rules text. The rules breathe in a way I don't know that I've seen many game texts do. And they're not complicated. Quite the contrary, they're mostly simple. But that's why it's so tight and interesting.

So that's why I've come to blog. I'm going to do some periodic short entries, each on a different bit of rules text in Rivendell to talk about why they're so interesting. I'm that jazzed about this one single, not even that thick game book. So let me start with a short one:

Rivendell as Land of Dreams

In Tolkien's text, there's a hazy, dreamy quality to Rivendell for everyone but the elves who live there. That exists in any of the elf-holds which he mentions, but Rivendell is almost a anthropomorphized character in its own right.

But that's hard to model in rules text. Hell, it's hard to describe with enough style that your players fully get it, no matter how good a GM you are.

Francesco leans on his board game background here. The GM is supposed to make very clear that characters visiting Rivendell have a choice, one which has benefits and drawbacks. It's very consciously made. The rules:

1) If you spend adventuring time in Rivendell, the Shadow rating of the characters is considered zero. (Shadow is the measure of how weighed down the heroes are by the ugliness happening in Middle-earth). Characters also heal from physical wounds at a much faster rate.

2) If you do the above, however, you only get 1 experience point that session. Period. If you were set to get 2, 4, or a dozen, it doesn't matter. You get 1. Because time is weird in Rivendell. It passes slowly. You get complacent. It's too wonderful to leave, especially when it's so ugly outside of it. You get lazy, basically.

And that's it. A lesser game might rely on the well-worn fantasy game trope of "make a willpower save to leave" or something equally blunt. Rivendell (the book) presents a firm choice, equal parts good and bad: stay here if you want, enjoy it while you do, but realize that you're risking your competency long-term.