Pros: Strong “feel” of Middle-Earth; good advice; clear and flexible system
Cons: Applicable primarily to a certain type of player
Rating: 5 out of 5
First published 3/6/2003
The idea behind “The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game,” put out by Decipher, is simple. We’ve read Tolkien’s books. We’ve seen the movies. Now, with the roleplaying game, we can create our own denizens of Middle-Earth and roleplay their epic quests and journeys. This time, we get to be the heroes.
This book is the core rulebook for the LOTR RPG. Although Decipher is producing further books to support the game, this is the only one you actually need in order to play it. The other things you’ll need are pretty simple: pencils and paper, a bunch of six-sided dice (d6)–2 for each player and 4 for the “Narrator” (game master-equivalent, the person who runs the adventures) at minimum, and a few friends. (Generally you need at least one player and the Narrator; I’ve seen games go up as high as 12 players, but most people prefer to have 3-5.)
- Introduction, including a clear and useful “what is roleplaying” section for new roleplayers
- A guide to the realms of Middle-Earth
- Character archetypes (sample characters)
- Basic character creation
- Races of Middle-Earth for character creation
- “Orders” for character creation
- Skills and traits for character creation
- The magic system
- Weapons and gear
- The CODA System rules
- A guide to the elements of epic fantasy and how you can include them in your game
- A guide to creating and running your game
- A chapter on the evil critters the heroes might go up against (including stats for many familiar enemies)
- A thorough index
This is an absolutely gorgeous book! The cover is a beautiful hardcover, dark around the border, with a close-up of the One Ring on Sauron’s finger. The pages are glossy and full-color, filled with images from the movies. The title font is attractive; the side-bars are done up like old pieces of parchment. This is truly an attractive book.
The people who put together this game had a choice to make. They could try to create a game that focused exclusively on the feel and atmosphere of Tolkien’s tales, or they could create a game that allowed a wider variety of fantasy roleplaying. The advantage to the latter is that the game would appeal to more roleplayers–in theory, more sales. The advantage to the former is that there are already plenty of fantasy roleplaying games out there, many of which were obviously loosely inspired by Tolkien’s work. Focusing on the unique aspects of his books could help to distinguish the LOTR RPG from other, similar games.
Who This Game Will Appeal To
The designers (wisely, in my opinion) decided to focus very narrowly on the particular aspects of Tolkien’s universe. For example, on pages 50 and 51 you’ll find a section entitled “The Qualities of Heroes.” It makes the point that, “for The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game, you can’t just create any sort of character. You have to create one who fits the setting and embodies the qualities it sets forth as virtuous. In short, you have to create a hero.” It then goes on to explain the qualities of heroes as exemplified by Tolkien’s tales.
Similarly, the later chapters aimed at the Narrator have plenty of information on creating a game that fulfills the needs of an epic fantasy. There’s a mechanic called “Courage” that specifically encourages and rewards heroic roleplaying, and most of the “edges” (merits/advantages) and flaws start from the assumption that you’re roleplaying a hero. In addition, unlike most fantasy RPGs, there’s no easy and quick healing system–if characters get seriously hurt, they’ll be hurt for a while.
After all, if you aren’t going to focus on these particular aspects of Tolkien’s work, then you might as well get your roleplaying fix by using “Dungeons & Dragons” and some background story from one of Tolkien’s books–you don’t need a separate roleplaying game for that.
However, this does mean that this roleplaying game will appeal primarily to a certain kind of roleplayer. It will appeal to character-players: people who roleplay not to kill monsters and gain treasure, but to explore a character. If your gaming group has no interest in this sort of roleplaying, then there’s little value for you in picking up this game. In addition, because the emphasis is on heroism, and because good and evil in Tolkien’s world are pretty black and white, this isn’t a game for people who need to have moral ambiguities in their game or want to play evil characters. Heroes in this game can be flawed, but they’re still heroes.
What Kind of Background Do You Need?
Obviously, the LOTR RPG is aimed at people who are at least passingly familiar with Tolkien’s world. Almost everyone has read one of the books or seen the movies by now, and the RPG isn’t likely to appeal to people who haven’t, so I think that isn’t an unreasonable assumption.
I’m not sure why the guide to the realms of Middle-Earth is placed near the front of the book. I found it very confusing, because it seems to assume a familiarity with the books that I might have had right after I read them–more than 15 years ago–but certainly don’t have now. However, later chapters of the book provide enough information, I believe, that this chapter will make much more sense if you just wait to read it until you’ve read through the rest of the book.
The book does include a timeline for the Third Age, as well as the aforementioned guide to the realms of Middle-Earth, information about the various races, and so on. So while it would certainly be wise for the Narrator to have read one or more of the books recently, you can probably get away without it.
The game does not assume that you are familiar with other roleplaying games. However, neither does it stick to incredibly obvious, low-level advice. This means it’s useful to both old-timers and new players alike.
The CODA System
The CODA System (the rules that govern game-play) is good. Most actions (“tests”) require rolling 2d6 (two six-sided dice) in an attempt to meet or exceed a given target number (TN). Various factors can affect the TN or the number you roll; your character’s attributes and skills, for example, provide bonuses that you add to the result which you roll.
The system is very thorough–rules are provided for all occasions, and charts cover all sorts of possibilities. However, it’s also very flexible. Characters can work together on a task, oppose each other, and so on. Wherever possible the system supports the idea that you should be able to try anything you can think of.
There are race-specific abilities, and each race comes with its own selection of requirements and adjustments. For example, if you play a Dwarf, you get +2 Strength and +2 Vitality and you’re required to take at least two levels in any Craft skill. Each race comes with several sample “background packages.” You can take one of these, or create your own background. (In general, this game strikes a very good balance between giving you an easy option, and then providing you a more complex means to tailor things to your own preferences. Again it appeals to both new and experienced roleplayers.)
You then choose an “order,” or a profession. (A “character class” in other games.) This seems pretty standard, but the provided range is actually fairly wide and interesting, including a few unusual options (such as the Mariner). You also have the option of starting with multiple orders (although you can only advance in two at a time) or no order. Later on, as your character becomes more proficient, he may become eligible to join an “elite order.” Orders include order-specific abilities that you may choose, and again you are provided with sample background packages or the choice of customizing your own.
A wide range of skills, edges and flaws are provided, and I think they do a good job of supporting the feel and genre of the game and setting. Unlike some games, you aren’t required to specialize too much–for example, it would be perfectly reasonable to play a magician who also knows how to wield a sword.
I was very curious to see how the authors would handle the magic of Middle-Earth, which is subtle, individualistic, and unique. Surprisingly, they did a remarkably good job of it. Magical abilities are represented by “spells,” but spells are very flexible. They can be cast in different manners, and can work in different ways for different spell-casters. You can even combine spells to work together for new and different effects. There are 70+ spells, so there’s plenty to work with here. Just remember that the power level may be a bit different than what roleplayers are used to from other games; even Gandalf didn’t generally go around striking down armies with lightning bolts.
The Narrator gives the characters “experience points” throughout the game. When a character accrues 1,000 points, he gains an “advancement.” This gives him five “advancement picks” which he can trade in at various rates for things such as renown, bonuses to skills, new edges, more Courage, more Health, and so on.
It’s a very simple, straightforward system. My only confusion springs from the fact that I’m not certain why they made some of the choices they did. Why give 5 advancement picks after 1,000 experience points–why not just give one for every 200 so that characters can improve more gradually? And why specify experience point awards in terms of, for example, 1,000 points divided among all characters upon successful completion of a chapter’s primary objective–this means that the rate of advancement of the characters is highly dependent upon the number of players playing the game. Why not specify an average number of points per character instead?
Believe it or not, there’s even a section on resolving large battles–something that too many RPGs ignore because it’s a tough thing to know how to handle! It provides a couple of options, from the remarkably quick and simple to the more complicated “unit combat.” There’s even an optional system for figuring out what happens to the player characters during the battle, giving them a chance to get hurt or do something truly heroic.
All of the problems I’ve found have been small ones. Either they’re things like the advancement system, which isn’t really a problem (just a choice that I don’t entirely understand), or they’re minor inclarities, inconsistencies, or typos. There’s an order ability that seems to assume a different Courage system than the one that’s actually in place, for example. (This could be a case of revision thrash–where the order ability worked perfectly with a version of the Courage mechanic from a previous draft of the game.) There’s a spell with a description that confused me a bit as to how it worked. Little things like that–the kind of things you’ll find in the first edition of any game. The typos are few and far between.
To Play or Not to Play?
On the one hand it’s everything I like in a game: flexible, customizable, allowing you to do and try almost anything. This nicely supports the fact that people are going to want to try everything they’ve seen in the movies and read about in the books.
On the other hand, it’s also a style I’m not overly fond of: there’s a rule for everything, and plenty of charts to go along with. I prefer a simpler game that relies on common sense a little more; I have trouble remembering lots of little rules and I’m not fond of having to look up lots of things during game-play (although at least the index is thorough, making this easier). However, I recognize that this is my personal preference–many new players are probably going to appreciate having rules to tell them how to handle everything.
The setting is strong, and the system’s support of that setting is outstanding. The system works well. It would be hard not to create a game with the proper atmosphere and mood after reading this book, and the book is gorgeous and well-organized. I’ve rarely seen rules presented in such a clear and straightforward manner.
All in all, this is an outstanding game! I think that anyone eager for a taste of heroism, Middle-Earth style, would get a great deal of enjoyment from this book.
You can find previews and details of the game, a PDF version of the character sheet, an interview with the lead designer, a FAQ and the all-important errata (they fix several of the mistakes I noted) at Decipher’s website.