19 January 2011

Upcoming Middle-earth RPG: Some News

A brief report on the upcoming Middle-earth RPG, entitled The One Ring, can be found here.

Alas, that report is in Italian. Fortunately, an English translation can be found here. I've pasted it below:
Crude translation:

The One Ring of Nepitello

We had already given a preview of the news about the new role-playing game inspired by
The Lord of the Rings, here. And we had pre-announced an interview with Francesco Nepitello on this ambitious project, here. Well, enough beating around the bush... here are the facts!

We had an interesting conversation with Francesco during PLAY, and now we really hope for this long-awaited title.

A bit of background... Francesco is asleep in bed one day when the phone rings and his Spanish contacts point out that nobody in the world has thought of making a new RPG of
The Lord of the Rings, now that the licenses are free. "But what do you think? The license will cost a lot..."

Some time passes, rumors circulate, contacts are contacted, and he gets another call, this time from
Sophisticated Games: "We liked your work on our Lord of the Rings games, how about also designing the role-playing game?"

In short: Francesco Nepitello finds himself at the head of the team developing the new RPG of
The Lord of the Rings, made by Sophisticated Gamesand published in England by Cubicle 7.

But now let's talk about the game itself. There is still little known. It's still in playtest, even if the rules have been decided and we are talking more than anything else about having to clean up and refine the details and errors that may have escaped.

The project is very interesting and follows, for better or worse, some trends in modern game design seen around for a couple of years now.

Starting from the outside, so to speak, the physical product may recall the recent Warhammer 3, as it is presented as a box containing two booklets of about 60 pages, the dice for the game, and various other useful accessories to match... but here Francesco corrects us, recalling that long before WH3, the very Italian (and his) Lex Arcana used a similar publishing model.

Another modern element is the "scope" of the game. As already in D&D4 and WH3, so also The One Ring offers the public a specific type of gaming experience, leaving behind the concept of "one game for everyone to do everything, but in a Tolkienian sauce" and choosing to offer a single thing done well. It will be a game structure essentially traditional, but with a number of advantages and potentials that no other game based on
The Lord of the Rings has ever had before.

But what is it exactly? In two words: historical reconstruction. Nepitello and his development team have made a deep and extensive research work on the original texts of the works of Tolkien to search for what the author really imagined, eliminating all distortions that the many different editions of the games inspired by them have introduced into the collective imagination.

From this clean canon, it was then decided what Tolkien wanted to convey with the stories he told, and based on this we tried to shape the game to allow the group to create and live exactly those kind of stories, with those issues and those particular characteristics.

The result?

The game is designed to develop in chronological chapters. The manual will provide as the basic setting the area of Mirkwood in the period immediately following the death of the dragon Smaug which occurred at the hands of Bilbo in
The Hobbit, and will focus on the adventures of the Free Peoples of the North. That's it.

Let me explain...

Behind this incipit there is a specific choice of game design. Tolkien's stories deal with themes of human heroism and sacrifice and struggle with the difficulties; the whole game is then directed to re-create these kinds of stories in the best possible way.

No need, therefore, to provide a complete atlas of Middle-earth when the only playable area is actually Mirkwood. No need to draw on the thousands of years of history of Arda if the only playable period is actually the time when, after Smaug died, the frontiers were opened to travelers with curiosity and hopes for an eventful life. No need to list statistics for unplayable races like the Numenoreans or the High Elves. No need, like the old rulebooks, to offer every possible option to do anything in any way, but then not be used, in fact damaging the playing group that was trying to deal with many different and often conflicting demands that almost always went beyond the style of the Tolken canon.

Therefore, a closed environment but very detailed and rich in opportunities for adventure, a pre-determined period of time but chosen for its potential to play; races selected for their effective usability issues within the "humanity" of the work.

But this is only the beginning! Where the base module lays the foundation, subsequent releases will carry forward the chronology of the story, expanding the available playable area, gradually darkening the tone and themes until you reach the period of the war and the events of Mount Doom.

In essence, the game features a world where Frodo and the original members of the company never existed. There may be players to take their place... or not. The great historical events go on, and players have the opportunity to influence them step by step, altering the great history of the world. All this while respecting the spirit, style and themes of the works of Tolkien.

Not only that, but every game rule is designed to evoke some aspect of Tolkien. For example, the characters have three basic statistics (the typical triad of values physical, mental and spiritual) that directly recall a phrase from Gandalf to Frodo, in which the text listed the qualities that the young hobbits would need to overcome the expected trials.

[?Skills improve the more you successfuly use them.] This rule takes on a very evocative value when we learn that with the passage of time and the accumulation of power they can "corrupt" the characters by increasing a value called Shadow, and all races react differently: for example, Elves (as Legolas) become increasingly detached from worldly matters physical and mortal, which is translated into rules in the gradual inability to use the bonuses stemming from abilities.

The game also plans to follow the life of the characters, to the idea that human players create a series of characters to simulate the fact that one grows old and retires and is replaced by his heir (biological or spiritual).

The game time is in fact divided into "seasons". Every great adventure is followed by a rest period (at a Safe Haven with their companions, or at their homeland with their family). In this way, the heroic abilities of the character, or its personal and family life, are developed.

It also presents a strict system of classes/careers with multiple choice also designed to ensure that the characters in the game reflect the typical heroes of the saga and Tolkien, and do not become super-rounded characters that would have very little to do with Middle-earth.

This is supported by a number of traits that confer special bonuses to the character and ability, but always with a view to increase the consistency with respect to race and class.

So expect to see this interesting and innovative project to mature, which seems to happen early next year. It's interesting to note that eventually more and more parts of the world of role-playing game is being slowly and often without self-consciousness, pushing in the direction indicated by the Indy games or so-called New Wave. A direct question, Francesco tells us that it was not at all inspired by these new models of design and indeed in some ways he wanted to get some distance.

But in considering the regulation, for the little that is given us to know, is known as the development team has analyzed the things that really make the players at the table and tried to influence them through the game mechanics, rather than simply determining if the imaginary world of imaginary physical game does cause a sword +1 or +2 points of damage, and in the end this is one of the real differences between traditional and modern design. Then we have already mentioned the design decision to offer a gaming experience is certainly more limited than usual (often unpopular choice) but in the face of much greater relevance to the fees chosen, thus defining a clear purpose for the game. And in this regard is Francesco himself (probably without suspecting any thing) to cite as a possible source of inspiration and comparison, the popular Pendragon, one of the few games "old" in which designers recognize the merits of the new wave. It would not be the first time a designer comes to the streets of all personal choices and solutions in line with the latest trends in modern design, without moving away from traditional style rendesene account that went for more in the last forty years. Dual therefore the interest in the release of this manual, remember, bring attention and prestige to the Italian scene play in the world.
Here are some of my initial thoughts:

I'm not sure what the author means by the "new wave" or "new models" of RPG design. The primary influence clearly seems to be Pendragon, and at 25+ years of age, Pendragon hardly can be considered a 'new model' RPG.

A Middle-earth RPG that resembles Pendragon actually sounds quite intriguing! It would be distinct form earlier efforts (MERP and Decipher's LotR), and could potentially capture the ethos of Middle-earth quite well.

My main concern has to do with the game's narrow focus. Northern Mirkwood during the late Third Age is a great setting for a campaign, especially for starting one up (it has lots of opportunity for adventure, but no high-powered foes ready to destroy a beginning band of adventurers). But it seems like a great mistake to provide information on only this region and era in the core box set.

It seems incomprehensible to me that a Middle-earth RPG would not enable players to create and run a Dunedan ranger or a Hobbit burglar! Likewise, surely Middle-earth GMs might be interested in running their adventures in the wilds of Eriador (perhaps as part of a 'ranger' campaign)? Or on Gondor's troubled Ithilien frontier? And then, of course, there are the different eras in which Middle-earth adventures could take place.

In short, my worry is that the focus of The One Ring RPG is far too narrow for a successful Middle-earth RPG.

Nonetheless, I'm happy to wait and see what eventually is released. Perhaps I'll be pleasantly surprised.

In any case, I remain quite fond of MERP, and have a pretty decent collection of old ICE Middle-earth campaign modules, so I'm not really desperate for new Middle-earth gaming material.

(One picky point: Bard slew Smaug, not Bilbo, contrary to what is indicated by the blurb's text.)

(Illustration note: I've posted another excellent picture by the incomparable Agnus McBride. It depicts a chase in the Rhovanion, which seemed appropriate, given the forthcoming game's focus on the northern Mirkwood region.)

(Thanks to Benoist for bringing this article to my attention in this thread.)


  1. First and foremost, I'm put off by the comparison to Warhammer 3e. Way too many fiddly bits. And the limitation to Northern Mirkwood is strange and potentially off-putting (it sounds like you'll have to pay for additional modules to expand into other areas... eek $$$). Still, I'm curious and can't wait to read reviews when it comes out.

  2. The focus on Northern Mirkwoot seems reasonable, but like Risus Monkey I'm turned off because of the Wfrp 3e comparison. However it may refer only to the boxed style publishing not the enormous amount of fiddly bits.

  3. Great news! I agree with your analysis Akrasia. My main worries are the narrow scope that you also mention, and the fact that it is produced by a company that mainly seems to focus on board games? Still, will be interesting to see how it turns out!

  4. I disagree with the worry, if the game system is good it will go well. If not, it won't. A narrow focus provides an AP like experience compared to a campaign box set. Not for everyone, but doesn't mean it won't be good.
    I am sure you will be able to play a hobbit, Legolas is specifically mentioned so I think they are cutting out the OP races like 'High Elves' (name escapes me) or Uruk Hai!
    This (I hope) will be a good way to get people into RPGs, like talisman but more towards RPG than board game.

  5. I'm in agreement with the majority on this one. Too narrowly focused and potentially too expensive if you need supplemental books (box sets?) to expand to the area or time frame you really want to play in.

    In addition, one gripe I have to any Middle Earth RPG is that we know the story. Its quite specific. The world is interesting and expansive but the story of the Lord of the Rings is set, holy canon to a lot of people. So, if I can't effect the outcome of the War of the Ring, why give me a game that sets me on a path to do only that.

    Impress me. Right now I'll be saving my money.

  6. I've always thought Pendragon would work well in Middle Earth. I'd agree with the decision to move the setting away from 'D&D in Middle Earth' to somethingv less bothered with power gaming. And I suspect the narrow focus can be addressed with expansions, as the FFG boys are demonstrating with WFRP. If only they can get permission to use the McBride artwork...!

  7. With The Hobbit movie coming soon, it seems that Mirkwood scope is a commercial strategy before a design one.

    King Arthur Pendragon influence seems notory on character lifetime and heir, rest (winter) phase. But I do see influence from The Burning Wheel (character lifepaths and traits) and Mouse Guard (narrow focus, seasons) too.


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).