This isn’t a review. It would be a pretty pointless review to do, anyway, as the game in question is The One Ring. TOR released in 2011 (when I rushed into the GenCon exhibitor hall to grab a copy). The second edition recently Kickstarted for almost $2 million (USD). If you are somehow in the market for a review of a 10 year old RPG that is about to be upgraded with a new edition… I guess you’ll still enjoy this post anyway.
What this is is a love letter. It’s an exploration of how a game that I can pick apart as a design has nonetheless been the perfect game for a year spent in my own hobbit-hole. It’s some thoughts on how reviews work, and how experience and analysis interplay. It’s maybe/hopefully entertaining to read.
The Darkening Of Mirkwood
Over a year ago the pandemic took my old gaming group, folks that live far enough away that I’m lucky to see them once a year, online. In the initial surge of “wow, look at everything I can do now that I have nothing else to do” they offered me a spot in their game of The One Ring. They’d just started The Darkening of Mirkwood, a lengthy pre-written campaign.
I was sold by the group, not the game. In 2012 or so I’d run a handful of sessions of The One Ring and found it fiddly, over-complicated, and boring. It’d felt like a boardgame with some light basic RPG elements on top. The most interesting parts of the game were also the hardest to understand from the wordy rulebook. But, for this group of friends I’d have played Synnibar.
Now, a year later, my anarchist hobbit is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever played. This campaign will go down as one of my all-time greats.
Look Upon My Campaigns Ye Mighty And Despair
A quick survey of the campaigns I would cite as my best extended gaming experiences gives these systems:
- Burning Wheel (Revised)
- Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (2nd Ed)
- Dungeons & Dragons (3E)
- The One Ring (1E)
- Call of Cthulhu (d20)
Only one of those is a game I’d wholeheartedly recommend (Burning Wheel). Another I would recommend with some caveats (The One Ring). The others aren’t games I’d actually recommend—I don’t dislike them, but there are other systems I’d recommend to hit a similar feel. But these are the experiences I’d hold up as the best gaming of my life.
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This is why this isn’t a review, but is a love letter: the experiences we love are not always portable.
If my feelings on The One Ring were a restaurant review they’d have middling scores for the food, but excellent scores for the ambiance, and “ambiance” is more or less code for how you liked being there.
With this exact set of folks, in this exact time, The One Ring has been absolutely amazing. But the conditions I am aware of (and there are probably more I never noticed) that led to The One Ring being absolute amazing include:
- The 10th anniversary of the films leading to a steady stream of great articles to pass around our gaming group.
- A move to online gaming for everyone making including remote folks painless
- The paring of a setting that is basically hopepunk with a year that desperately needed hope.
- A system with enough fiddly bits to keep everyone reading more books but simple enough to be played easily online.
There’s a bit here that’s central to how we review and think about media, including games. I can only provide an absolutely accurate review of my experience of playing The One Ring, and it is 5 stars. But that review is not of the game you will play, or the other time I played The One Ring. Especially in a culture driven by an attention economy there’s a tendency to state reviews of experiences as reviews of the thing that was experienced and to use that to drive engagement. If I wanted people to read this post I would have tried to argue that, since I had the time of my life playing The One Ring, you will to. That’s an easier, more grabby article than this meandering journey through an experience. “The One Ring Will Bring Tolkien To Life At Your Table.”
But like Tolkien’s works it feels more honest to express genuine personal sentiment instead of a global truth, and maybe through that to approach some truths. In the spirit of a strange old professor with a thing for elves and umlauts this is an unapologetically personal and meandering post.
I have come here to praise TOR, not to bury it
This is a pretty bad love letter as I have mostly explained why The One Ring wouldn’t be one of my go-to recommendations. But what I love about The One Ring is that it does Tolkien better by doing other things worse.
What I mean: if you want Tolkien-inspired fantasy Burning Wheel is wholly better, but if you want Tolkien fantasy play The One Ring.
Tolkien himself thought of Middle Earth more as a place he was recording than a story he was inventing, and The One Ring feels indebted to this:
“An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour (especially since, even apart from the necessities of life, the mind would wing to the other pole and spend itself on the linguistics): yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.”” - J. R. R. Tolkien, letter included as forward to The Silmarillion
TOR is a game that so badly wants you to know the history of Middle Earth, not just of The War of The Ring. It’s a game that wants you to be excited about visiting Lothlorien as a rarefied thing despite having seen in a hundred times. It’s a game that wants you to think of Thingol when a dwarf and an elf bicker.
And in that it makes choices that, if you are interested in anything but obsessively visiting places and people from Tolkien’s imagination, are substantially less interesting.
Take, for example, the journey rules. As presented (and as I first played them) they were dry and laborious. The players chart their path, then the GM determines the number of rolls they will have to make to travel that based on the terrain, and the amount of corruption they will face based on the shadow around them. Then the players make their rolls and if they pass… they journey just happens.
This in itself isn’t bad. It’s fine for some parts of a game to pass without complication. The problem is in the amount of effort to determine if a complication occurs. There can easily be a double digit number of dice rolls per player and double digit minutes checking off boxes and relaying results for nothing to happen.
The interruptions that can happen thanks to failure or random chance are, at first, also uninspiring. Many of them require just a roll or two and result either in no change or in a minor loss of resources.
But over time, as these little things accumulate, the game begins to open up. Advancement in skills comes through using skills, so interruptions to a journey that do nothing to the actual outcome start to feel like opportunities to test yourself. The ebb and flow of hope can, in an instant, tip over into shadow and change the game dramatically.
Both of those general characteristics can be found more pointedly in other games. Burning Wheel (and the refinements in Mouse Guard and Torchbearer) handle skill advancement based on usage more eloquently with a clearer cycle of rewards. Shadow madness feels like a less focused version of Monsterhearts’ Darkest Self.
But in doing the same thing but more slowly and with less direction it gives a feel of Tolkien’s writing in a way that is only really a pay-off if you show up wanting a game that feels like good ol’ long-winded Tolkien. Just like the appendices of The Silmarillion retell the salient events of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in a handfull of pages and in doing so drains some of the weight and grace from them, the length of The One Ring feels like a part of its style.
I’d argue that, for any case but wanting something that takes longer, the mechanics in Burning Wheel and Monsterhearts cover their respective areas better. But in this year of home-bound stasis something that takes longer has felt good. Sometimes a game that just plain takes longer and gives you more time to shitpost about Thranduil with your friends is better than a better game.
How Many Stabs Does It Take To Get To The Center Of An Orc?
There is one area, though, where I still cannot cut The One Ring a pass. Combat is a mess.
If there is one thing I do not associate with Tolkien it’s long-winded fights. Long-winded journeys? Of course. Long-winded discourses on the politics of elves who’s names mostly start with F? Definitely. Even some of the larger battles go on for a bit. But the killing of one warg seems to happen in an instant, especially as rendered in the films (which are good enough and iconic enough to be a key part of the game despite technically being a different license).
Combat in TOR feels like a slog. All too often for an enemy to seem dangerous it comes with a stack of HP (not literally, the TOR system is a little different, but close enough) leading to fights that feel like attrition, not decisive blows.
If ever a game called for an abstracted combat system that somehow focused on only the key moments and glossed the rest The One Ring would be it. But instead combat is a round-by-round trading of blows.
In most other things TOR’s idiosyncrasies typically come off as charming, part of why I love a game that’s not one of my top recommendations. But combat is a step too far.
Like classic D&D adventures (looking at you, Caves of Chaos) The Darkening of Mirkwood feels like part of how to run the system more than it does additional content. In my initial game we had spun our own scenario and tried to move it forward, but without the obsessive background of Tolkien it felt like a more generic fantasy. With so much of the fantasy genre derived from Tolkien, going even a little off-script quickly plunges into something that just feels like D&D but with the proper name for halflings.
In any other system The Darkening of Mirkwood would annoy me. It is deeply scripted while putting the players in a well-known setting such that any actual outcome of their actions has to be fairly constrained. The Necromancer must be driven from Dol Guldur right on schedule and you can’t waltz into Bag End and grab the ring. Encounters with major figures can end up feeling like Disney rides where a not-quite-right Rhadagast pops by to deus ex machina.
A more ambitious (and less likely to be licensed) campaign could attempt to Tag & Binks Are Dead the whole thing with the player characters running a non-canonical second fellowship alongside the real one who are secretly filling in plot holes and so on. Presumably they’d be the ones who tried flying into Mordor on Eagles and got shot down by Ringwraiths.
But with the strengths and weaknesses of The One Ring this kind of campaign sings. It’s certainly not without flaws as some adventures are too thin and others out stay their welcome, but it tends to show what the system can do better than what I (or I think most GMs) could make up.
The timeline in particular is important to the feeling of place. Having an inevitable leisurely walk towards a long expected party and seeing little details tick by towards a known ending has been key to this feeling specific instead of generic, even as that inevitability robs some choices of their weight.
The depth of care for the writings of an odd linguistics professor turns this from being a ride (as in: keep your arms and legs inside the ride at all times) to being a ride (as in: that was a fucking wild ride!).
Have You Heard About The Good Book?
The One Ring ultimately inspired me to read The Silmarillion which turned out to be very similar in a way. The initial rush of learning the history of Middle Earth propelled me through the first third of The Silmarillion. Then the incessant politics of elves who’s names mostly start with F made the middle a complete slog before the final doom left me wanting more so badly that I almost went on to even more obscure Tolkien works (tho I haven’t yet).
The One Ring felt much the same. There was an initial thrill to the theme park ride through Middle Earth, then a growing exasperation with rules that felt like they had been done better elsewhere, before coming around to loving the whole thing.
If you have a year+ of extremely regular gaming ahead of you, perhaps this is a fit.
Well, I’m back
The One Ring is a game that loves the works it is based on and in turn it is easy to love for that. That love and joy in just nerding out about something is a large part of what drew me back to post about this. There’s a place and a role for dissection, and for righteous anger, and even for sadness and despair. Those are places I spend a lot of time in. Viewing Middle Earth as a story of hope as a radical life choice has been a vacation, and The One Ring is the tour guide who cares about the place they know more than anything else.
The One Ring is a game that just fucking loves Tolkien.