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Author Topic: The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game  (Read 999 times)

ColonelHardisson

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The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game
« on: September 21, 2006, 11:29:14 AM »
Chapter One: There And Back Again: The Realms of Middle Earth; Creating a Hero; Archetypes
Chapter Two: Might and Majesty: Attributes
Chapter Three: The Free Peoples: Races of Middle Earth
Chapter Four: Warriors, Wizards, and Kings: Orders
Chapter Five: Ringing Anvils and Rhymes of Lore: Skills
Chapter Six: Stern Men and Resolute: Traits
Chapter Seven: Words of Power and Runes of Might: Magic
Chapter Eight: Axe and Sword: Weapons and Gear
Chapter Nine: Good Words and True: The CODA System
Chapter Ten: Saga and Grandeur: Elements of Epic Fantasy
Chapter Eleven: Storied Heights and Firelit Halls: Creating and Running the Chronicle
Chapter Twelve: The Fear and the Shadow: The Enemy and His Servants



Layout and Art - This is a very handsome book. Stills from the film are on almost every page, and they all illustrate something on the page or in the section they are in. The illustrations that are not photos are very well done. Generally, the book is laid out and organized fairly well.

Introduction

The introduction contains a brief overview of what a roleplaying game is, pretty much the same kind of thing we've seen in many other RPGs. There is also a brief comparison of this game and the Adventure game Decipher released. Probably the most useful part of the Introduction is the Glossary for the game. Its position right at the front of the book helps preempt any confusion that could be caused by use of the various terms specific to this game, and many that are common to RPGs. Some of the notable terms are: Narrator, which is the equivalent of Gamemaster or Dungeon Master from other games; Scene, which is equivalent to an encounter; Chapter, which is a complete adventure; and Chronicle, which is an entire campaign. Other terms I'll address in the section that deals with them specifically.

Chapter One: There and Back Again:

The Realms of Middle Earth

This section of Chapter One presents a thumbnail sketch of the various regions, realms, and other locations found in Middle Earth. What is nice about these brief overviews is that they give an idea of what went on in the area during the War of the Ring and the beginning of the Fourth Age. There are a number of good adventure and campaign hooks or suggestions to be found in this section. The descriptions are concise and useful, but, of course, they don't go into any great depth. Given the general tone of the book, which emphasizes tale-telling rather than logistics, this seems logical. The section ends with a very attractive map of northwestern Middle-earth. For those who are wondering - no, it's not a poster map; it's printed on pages 34 and 35 of the book itself.

Creating a Hero

This section of Chapter One is a very cursory discussion of character creation, emphasizing what the player thinks his character should be, what skills he has, and his background. Decent, but so brief as to really be more of a bit of food for thought than a real discussion.

Archetypes

This section of Chapter One presents six beginning characters - three Warriors (a Dunadan, a Dwarf, and an Elf), a Hobbit Rogue, a Dunadan Magician, and a Dunadan Noble, with their stats and some background. Notably, this section contains almost the only non-movie-photo artwork of the book. Very nice, but what the heck is up with all the sandals?!? Sheesh!

Chapter Two: Might and Majesty: Attributes

Attributes are, as you might guess, the "innate capabilities" of the character. There are six Primary Attributes, that range from 2-12, and four Secondary Attributes, also called Reactions, which are tied directly to one of two of the Primary Attributes. Each attribute has a roll modifier based on the score for each Attribute. The Primary Attributes are: Bearing ("force of personality"); Nimbleness ("coordination, dexterousness, and deftness"), Perception ("awareness of your surroundings"); Strength; Vitality; and Wits. The Secondary Attributes, or Reactions, are: Stamina (pick the best modifier from either Strength or Vitality); Swiftness (best modifier of Nimbleness or Perception); Willpower (best modifier of Bearing or Wits); and Wisdom (best modifier of Bearing or Perception).

Related to the attributes are Defence, which is 10+Nimbleness, and Health, which is equal to Health+Strength modifier. Each character can sustain this much damage before dropping to the next lower Wound Level, of which there are five (except for Hobbits, who have four). The more Wound Levels the character drops, the larger a penalty he suffers to most rolls.

Characters also progress through six Weariness Levels, and must make a Stamina test to avoid dropping to the next lower level after exertion of some sort (fighting, spellcasting). Weariness also inflicts penalties to die rolls, much the same as being wounded.

Characters also have Courage. They begin with three points, with which they can modify tests. In some cases, based on the Narrator's ruling, they must be spent before a character can even attempt a particularly dangerous or difficult action. Courage is recovered, eventually, and characters can gain more as they advance.

Characters also can gain Renown for their deeds, and this helps them (or, in some cases, hinders them) when dealing with others.

There are brief discussions of Size and the ways Attributes can change (aging, illness, etc.), and a discussion of roleplaying one's attributes, that round out the chapter.

Chapter Three: The Free Peoples: Races of Middle Earth

This is an overview of the races available for use as player characters in the game. There is some background information (where they are generally found, languages they speak, and a list of typical names), and game information, which consists of Attribute adjustments and Skills and Traits from which the player can choose at the creation of the character. In addition, there are Background Packages for each race (and subrace, in some cases), which are basically given to speed along character creation, and to provide examples of what such characters "look like." There is an interesting sidebar about characters being "Elven-Blooded," and the effects of aging, that end the chapter.

Chapter Four: Warriors, Wizards, and Kings: Orders

Orders are the LotR RPG equivalent of classes. The basic orders are: Barbarian; Craftsman; Loremaster; Magician; Mariner; Minstrel; Noble; Rogue; and Warrior. Orders have Order Skills from which they can choose, and a number of Order Abilities unique to that Order, from Spellcasting for Magicians to Noble Mien for Nobles, and are chosen from as the character advances. There is a sidebar that discusses how characters can begin with no Order, and how they can belong to multiple Orders. As with the races, there is an overview of what each Order does, and a variety of packages for each order, from Basic Barbarian to Shirriff, which help kickstart character creation.

Most of the Orders will be familiar to anyone who has played a fantasy roleplaying game before. The Loremaster may bear a bit of explanation, though. Basically, this Order is a sage or expert that has some minor spellcasting ability based on his studies.

I can already hear "So where's the Ranger?!?" Fear not, my friend...there are Elite Orders. Elite Orders have prerequisites, so they can only be taken once the character has advanced sufficiently to meet those prerequisites. The Elite Orders are: Archer; Captain (a warrior and a leader); Knight; Spy; and Wizard.

Oops...I almost forgot the Ranger...yep, he's there.

Chapter Five: Ringing Anvils and Rhymes of Lore: Skills

Skills are pretty much universal to roleplaying games, so I won't go into a lot of depth here. They are used by way of Tests, which involve the Narrator setting a Target Number (TN) and the player rolling 2d6 and adding his rank (and any other modifiers) in the applicable skill. If the roll beats the TN, the Test has succeeded. There are Skill Affinities (knowledge of one skill helps in the use of another), and Degrees of Success (the more a test result exceeds a TN, the better the success). Some notable things about this game's skills: combat (Armed, Ranged, Unarmed) is grouped in with the skills; and there are a number of skills geared towards the roleplaying side of things (Debate, Inquire, Insight, Inspire, Intimidate, Persuade).

Chapter Six: Stern Men and Resolute: Traits

Traits are "qualities or abilities" that set the characters apart from other folk. There are two types: Edges and Flaws. Edges range from Ally (you have a powerful friend who will help you) to Honey-Tongued to Valiant (you gain more courage in very heroic circumstances). Flaws give the character an extra Pick (see below in Chapter Eleven about Picks) with which to work with, but are, obviously, negative otherwise. Flaws range from Craven to Reckless to Weak-Willed.

Chapter Seven: Words of Power and Runes of Might: Magic

Magic is used in three ways: Standard (pretty much like wizards in other games); Runes; and Songs of Power. The latter two methods take longer to use, but result in more powerful effects.

There are Spell Specialties, and examples of categories for them are: Air and Storm; Beasts and Birds; Fire, Smoke, and Light; Secret Fire; Sorcery; Water. Choosing a specialty means that the spellcaster gets a bonus to any test needed to cast any of the spells in that specialty. By the way, Sorcery is for the bad guys, and is corruptiing in nature.

Spellcasters can cast the spells they know as many times as they want, as long as they make a Weariness Test to do so. The TN for the Test is listed in the spell's description. Multiple spells cast in a short period of time increase the TN for the Weariness Test, so don't get your hopes up of being a machinegunner-type of spellcaster. It'll be beddy-bye time for the spellcaster pretty quick (in theory; see my discussion of shortcomings of the game).

Interestingly, the caster can modify a spell (eliminate the need for gestures or words, increase duration, etc.) by increasing the Weariness TN. In addition, a spellcaster can combine the casting of a number of spells into one casting (say, if he needs to cast Quench Fire and Watershaping all at once for some reason, like being in a big hurry to put out a fire and take a bath. I'm kidding.) by doing the same thing, basically.

Examples of the spells in the game: Burning Sparks, Command (a Sorcery spell), Fiery Missile, Healing-spell, Lightning, Mind-speech, Opening-spell, Rain-ward (keeps the caster from getting wet in the rain - one of my favorites), Scribe Moon-letters, Slumber, Word of Command.

Magic items are also discussed, from Dwarven Magical Toys to Palantiri to, of course, the Rings. Heroic items are introduced; these are items which are not specifically enchanted, but which are more powerful than normal items. I was surprised to see Anduril listed as a Heroic weapon, not as an Enchanted one. I disagree with this, but I can see the reasoning behind this assertion. Plus, I just don't see any real difference between "heroic" and "magic" items, so I feel this distinction is not really clear or necessary.

This is a particularly strong chapter. There are essays that discuss the way magic subtly affects the world in Middle-earth, from oaths and curses to premonitions to seeming coincidences that aid the good guys to fate to the power of words. Also, how spellcasters learn spells is discussed, as are counter-spells and magic abilities, like those of Beorn.

Chapter Eight: Axe and Sword: Weapons and Gear

This is a brief chapter, and includes much of what you'd expect from the title. There is also a discussion of money in Middle-earth.

For those who are interested: armor subtracts from damage inflicted.

Chapter Nine: Good Words and True: The Coda System Rules

This is where Decipher's Coda system is detailed. The basic mechanic is: roll 2d6, add modifiers (from attributes, skill ranks, or whatever other modifiers are appropriate), and try to beat a Narrator-determined Target Number. These are called Tests. There are three types of Tests: Academic, Physical, and Social.

Combat is basically a skill test, with the TN being the defender's Defence score. There are several different maneuvers that can be performed, and each takes an Action or more to perform.

Action Rounds are the time in which activity such as combat is performed, and are six seconds long. Each character gets two Actions (although some abilities can grant more to a character), Combat and/or Movement, that he can perform in a round. Some Actions are full-round Actions, though. A character can try to perform more Actions in a round, but gets a cumulative penalty of -5 to his rolls for each additional action.

Corruption can be suffered by a character when exposed to a corruptive influence like tempation or the use of Sorcery. To resist, the character must make a Willpower test. If the Test fails, the character gains one or more points of Corruption. Once corrupted, it becomes harder to resist further corruption, but it is possible to shake it off. Plus, a character can try various ways to atone for the corruption, and thereby eliminate it - such as Boromir did. The character suffers a penalty to all social skills equal to the number of Corruption points he has. Once he has Corruption points that exceed his Bearing, he is then thoroughly corrupt, a servant of the Shadow.

There is a fairly substantial section of this chapter devoted to horses. Horses can have the abilities Steady and War-Trained. Stats are given for various horses, from ponies to mearas to elven horses.

A pleasant surprise to me in this chapter was a very simple, but rather elegant, mass combat system. Basically, the relative strengths of both sides, based on their numbers, the valiancy of their leaders, and other factors, are added to a 2d6 roll made for each side. If the characters' side wins, they move up a level on a chart, towards Victory. If they lose, they move down the chart towards Defeat. There is also a chart that determines where the character(s) is (are) in the battle (Outskirts, Thick of Battle, Heart of Battle), which modifies what happens to him (them) in the battle on another chart. Unit Attributes for typical units (Dwarves, Orc, etc.) are given. In addition, an equally simple and elegant section details siege warfare. Siege engines inflict a certain amount of damage, structures have Protection that absorbs some of this damage, as well as Structure points that must be eliminated for the structure to be destroyed. The Protection and Structure for many of the famous fortresses of Middle-earth are given, as well as the stats for typical examples.

There are sections on falling, drowning, poison damage, travelling, and healing from injury and weariness. All fairly straightforward.

Chapter Ten: Saga and Grandeur: Elements of Epic Fantasy

This is an interesting chapter, dealing with something I rarely have seen dealt with in such detail in a roleplaying game. It deals with the elements that make up epic fantasy - such as the nature of heroism, good and evil, self-sacrifice, and fate vs. free will. The game designers make it very, very clear that this game is intended for those who wish to portray very good, heroic characters. It isn't intended for antiheroes or moral relativists.

I feel this chapter is very necessary for a game of epic fantasy, especially the Lord of the Rings. In my opinion, even the most roleplay-focused game mechanics will never encourage players to game in an epic-fantasy mold unless the Narrator/GM/DM and the players agree to game that way. Such mechanics may help those who already wish to game in such a vein, but they won't get hack 'n' slashers to give up the "kill 'em all" attitude (and hey, I like such gaming myself a good part of the time). This chapter helps paint a clear picture of what Lord of the Rings - and other epic fantasy - is all about. This is important, because the looser structure of the game could be exploited quite well by powergamers. Not that there is anything wrong with powergaming (again, I like it too, on occasion), but it's not in the spirit of the Lord of the Rings, or a lot of epic fantasy.

Chapter Eleven: Storied Heights and Firelit Halls: Creating and Running the Chronicle

This chapter is basically a Narrator's tips section. It provides tips and advice to someone wishing to run the game, and covers topics like pacing (especially Tolkienesque pacing), tailoring adventures to suit the characters, and good times and places to set a game.

One of the things from this chapter that I've seen receive some attention is the fact that the Narrator is strongly advised to weight things in favor of the player characters. I think that, while I see where the game designers are coming from, based on the Tolkienesque feel they wish to evoke, a gamemaster will have to walk a very fine line in this regard. As the designers themselves discuss in the chapter, there is a danger of making the characters complacent or bored if they believe that everything is weighted to help them win.

This chapter also details experience point acquisition, and advancement. When a character reaches 1000 experience, he advances. Basically, a character acquires five "Picks" with which he can advance or acquire skills, abilities, or traits. Some of these only cost one Pick, some cost more. There is discussion of how a character can acquire new skills and traits, and a discussion (and chart) concerning Renown.

Chapter Twelve: The Fear and the Shadow: The Enemy and His Servants

This chapter consists of stats for monsters and villains, from Wargs to Saruman. Sauron is discussed, but is given no stats, unsurprisingly. Overall, this chapter is very useful, not only for the obvious reasons - hey, heroes need bad guys to fight - but also in giving a feel for what the player characters should "look like" as they advance in order to take on these bad guys.

Index

A very serviceable index, and a nice, two page character sheet, round out the book


General thoughts:

Flaws:

I saw a number of dropped ends of paragraphs, especially when going from one page to another. It seems that nothing vital was left out, but it was still a bit jarring.

Character generation is disorganized. Picks, and advancement in general, are not fully explained until late in the book - I assumed each pick could buy a skill advancement, an edge, an order ability; not so. Not a huge problem, but the organization could have been a bit better in this regard.

The art for the book is almost entirely stills from the film, as I noted above. It would have been nice to see more original artwork. Don't get me wrong, the photos are spectacular. It's just that they tie the game too strongly to the film, for my taste.

The characters from the Fellowship are not in the book. There is a separate sourcebook for the film with the characters in it, as well as one for The Two Towers. I know many don't care much for the detailing of NPCs from a film or book, but I like them because they give me a reference from which to determine what characters in the game and setting are intended to "look like."

The 2d6 mechanic doesn't give a wide enough spread. That is, chance plays less of a role in the game. Some may like that, but I strongly prefer that chance play a larger role in order to put suspense into the game. Coupled with this, Target Numbers are often set far too low. This is especially true for fatigue TN's for the spells. What this means is that TN's are so easy to meet that that spellcasters can fire off spells pretty much at will without having to worry about becoming fatigued.

Not much is done to maintain balance in the game. Some orders and races (especially) are simply better than others. The game could be exploited by powergamers. This isn't bad in and of itself, since people can play however they feel, but inexperienced players could find themselves overshadowed by more savvy players.

More attention should have been given to creating and balancing adventures for the game. It took a few sessions to figure out how to produce real challenges for the characters, as even beginning characters are fairly tough and able to handle pretty stiff challenges. A sample adventure either in the book or bound with it would have helped a lot in this regard.

Good Stuff (or maybe I should say "Edges"):

The game is based on the books, not the film(s). This is very good. The books and the film are rather different in a number of ways, not just in pacing or the substitution of one character for another, but in a lot of more subtle ways. I like the film a lot, but using the books as the primary source, especially when they conflict with the film, was the better way to go, in my opinion. The books have a lot more depth to be drawn upon.

The designers really know their Tolkien. There really is a love for the books that shines through here.

The magic system really does model what is found in Tolkien pretty well. I have a few reservations about the powers of some of the items, but overall, this is a fine treatment of the subject.

The various Racial Abilities, Order Abilities, and Traits really add a lot of flavor to the game, and seem very Tolkienesque to me.

The mass combat and siege warfare systems really shine for me. They won't please wargamers, not by a long shot, but they are a welcome element to the game.

Overall, I liked this game quite a bit, a lot more than I expected to. In actual play, it ran smoothly.

And now...

So...now that the straight-ahead review is done, I'm sure many will want to know about how this game measures up to d20.

It does bear a strong resemblance to d20. It plays very much like "d20 Light" using 2d6 as the core mechanic. Much of it would port very well over to d20, especially the Traits (which would be, for the most part, equivalent to Feats) and the Racial and Order Abilities. The game seems like a much more Skill and Feat-based d20, with the Orders/Classes being a bit more customizable than in D&D/d20. I'd like to see someone try their hand at converting the magic system over to d20 (many of the individual spells are virtually the same as their d20 counterparts). Overall, even if one doesn't play the game itself, it would be a mine of ideas for D&D/d20. Those looking for a less rules-intensive game that is still similar to D&D/d20 might enjoy this game quite a bit.
"Illegitimis non carborundum." - General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell

4e definitely has an Old School feel. If you disagree, cool. I won't throw any hyperbole out to prove the point.