Title: The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game, 4th edition Authors: Steven S. Long, John Rateliff, Christian Moore, Matt Forbeck Publisher: Decipher Year: 2002 304 pages Product Rating: 2 (**) Game Play Rating: 1 (*)
Review by John H. Kim (Copyright 2003 John H. Kim)
cf. other reviews by John
The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game is a game based on J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy of the same name and the movie adaptations from New Line Cinema. Their license also covers material from Tolkien's "The Hobbit". However, the license does not cover other works by Tolkien including the Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, or his letters. This limits the depth of the background.
The first question, then, is how does role-playing in Middle Earth compare to role-playing in similar fantasy settings inspired by Tolkien? The next question is how does this product compare to (1) using general Tolkien background material plus a universal or generic fantasy system, or (2) using the out-of-print Middle Earth RPG from Iron Crown Enterprises?
An important element of this edition is the errata and other online changes. Apparently due to a rushed job of release, this first edition has a number of vital rules changes which are found in four online releases: the "errata", the "rulings", the "FAQ", and the "Character Generation Summary". Key changes include:
The rulebook is full-size (8.5x11) and 304 pages. There is a brief Table of Contents (with only the twelve main chapter titles) and a 5-page index of medium quality. Every page is glossy color, and roughly half of the pages include one or two full-color pictures from the series. In addition to hundreds of photos, there are six color illustrations for the character archetypes, which are of fair quality. The chapters have different color page borders, which are visible from the side, which aids flipping.
The game assumes that you have read Tolkien, or at least watched the movies. The only pure background section of the book is the first chapter, which is a 24-page overview of the lands of Middle Earth. There is also mixed background and mechanics in the sections describing the races (i.e. dwarves) and creatures (i.e. dragons). There is a brief timeline in the GM advice section, but it is only 1/3 of a page. In general, the background chapter seems reasonably well-written. However, given the vast amounts of Tolkien scholarship and fan-compiled material that is out there, one could expect more in this department.
The mechanics are an adaptation of the "CODA" system used in the earlier Star Trek roleplaying game from Decipher. The central mechanic is adding your attribute (i.e. Strength), skill (i.e. Climbing), and a roll of 2d6. The total is then compared to a target number. The amount which it differs from the target determines the degree of success or failure. Success by 6 or more is a superior success, while success by 11 or more is an extraordinary success.
There are several pages of generic modifiers and extensions of this base mechanic, subdivided into the three categories of tasks: physical, social, and academic. Taken literally, this seems excessively complicated. There are 48 different modifiers listed in the three tables, such as light rain being +1 TN and heavy rain being +3 TN for physical tests. Given what is said in the GM's advice sections, I suspect that GM's will treat this section as guidelines for developing their own on-the-fly modifiers rather than looking up the involved rules.
The system is essentially skill-based, though characters have one or more "orders" which affect the cost of skills and give access to certain special abilities. There are 36 basic skills plus some openly-defined skills like Craft and Lore. There is also an advantage/disadvantage system, with 51 edges and 22 flaws. These have grainy costs: roughly half are binary on/off, while half have an initial option but can be further improved with 1 to 3 additional picks.
Character creation proceeds through a series of five steps: (1) attributes, (2) background skills, (3) racial picks, (4) order skills and picks, and (5) free picks. As an alternative, there are six character archetypes provided. These are really pre-made characters rather than representations of broad character types. The characters include a Human, Dwarf, and Elf Warrior, a Hobbit Rogue, a Human Magician, and a Human Noble. All of these are male, incidentally, as are all of the players and characters in the examples throughout the book.
There are six attributes: Bearing, Nimbleness, Perception, Strength, Vitality, and Wits. They are rated 2-12 for normal humans, and can either be randomly rolled (taking the best six out of nine 2d6 rolls), or point-based (allocating an average spread of 4,5,7,7,9,10 and then adding in 8 points as desired with a maximum of 12). The raw score of 2-12 is turned into a modifier, which is essentially raw minus six, then divided by two (round down). Based on this, you then calculate four "reactions", each of which is the higher of two attribute modifiers. The four reactions are Stamina (Strength/Vitality), Swiftness (Nimbleness/Perception), Willpower (Bearing/Wit), and Wisdom (Bearing/Perception). You also calculate Health which is Vitality plus the Strength modifier.
You then choose a race and sub-race. Each race has attribute modifiers (such as +2 Strength and +2 Vitality for Dwarves) and a set of automatic abilities (such as Light-footedness for Elves). You then get a set of six picks from the list of skills and edges for that race. A single pick can be used for +1 in a skill or to acquire one edge.
The orders are essentially classes of a sort: they represent logical groupings of skills and abilities rather than any organization or identity. Each order defines a set of 10-20 skills which get 20 points to spread among, and are at half-cost in experience. You also select one from exclusive set of special abilities, with more available with experience. You can be a member of multiple orders, but at a cost of five picks. The nine basic orders are: Barbarian, Craftsman, Loremaster, Magician, Mariner, Minstrel, Noble, Rogue, and Warrior. In addition, there are six "elite orders" which can only be gained later in play. These are: Archer, Captain, Knight, Ranger, Spy, and Wizard.
Essentially, an order gives you 25 points in skills, plus one edge and one special order ability. You may also take up to three flaws, each of which gives either +1 in a skill or 1 edge. After this, you have five "free" picks. In the original book, it clearly explains that each free pick can be used to increase an attribute by 1, take an edge, or increase a skill by 1. However, errata to the book from Decipher's website changes this to instead use the table from the advancement chapter.
I have a number of criticisms of the character creation system. There are several things which are essentially broken about character creation.
The magic chapter is 64 pages, including 18 pages describing the system's 73 spells as well as 10 pages on magic items. In addition to the spells of magicians, there is description of magical effects which may affect anyone: such as invoking divine powers, the magic of lands, talking beasts, prophecy, and curses. These are largely background and GM advice rather than mechanics. While there is a few concrete suggestions for mechanics, it is tricky to put into practice.
The game has taken the position that there are lesser "magicians", and greater "wizards" who are trained and inducted by the five chief wizards (i.e. Gandalf, Saruman, et al). Due to licensing restrictions, it does not use the terms "Maiar" or "Istari" for the Five but at least roughly describes their nature. I guess this was done so that PCs could advance from being magicians to being more powerful wizards, but there is no indication in Tolkien that this can happen. The description of magicians themselves is ambiguous. Supposedly, magicians tend to be solitary and secretive, but also form formal orders or covens at times. They may acquire their powers through inner talent, or through study and lore. However, both origins use the same mechanics for casting and advancement.
The mechanics of spell-casting are simple. A magician may cast any spell she knows by making a Stamina test against the listed target number for that spell. There are penalties for attempting to cast more than one spell in a minute (-3 per casting in the past minute) and for attempting to maintain spells while casting others (-3 per spell being maintained).
The spells overall are quite flavorful and for the most part fit well with the setting of Middle Earth. There are spells for most of the effects shown in the books and movies. The spells vary widely in power, from minor effects like colored smoke rings, to lightning bolts and shape-changing. There are a number of flaws, however:
Combat is fairly simple: you roll your attack as a normal skill roll. If your roll is higher than the opponent's defense roll, then you roll damage based on the weapon to determine the number of Health points lost. An extraordinary success (11 or more over the target number) results in maximum damage rather than rolling.
The target number depends on the defender's actions, which may be one of three choices:
Damage works on a wound track. A character has Health 4 to 15, and total points equal to six times this (i.e. average roughly 60). Every time your total damage passes a multiple of Health, you go into a worse wound category that causes an additional -2 penalty to all your actions (except the first category which is -1). The weapon damages were a source of major errata: 16 out of the 23 weapons had their damage revised in online corrections. Even with the corrections, though, they seem strange. A one-handed longsword does average 12 damage (plus Strength bonus of around +2 for warriors). The two-handed great axe does average 12.5 damage, so there is negligible benefit for sacrificing your shield. Normal armor will absorb up to 6 points of damage per hit (for chainmail with plate). There are no penalties for armor, as long as you are above-average strength.
There is also includes 6 pages on large-scale battles, including both a highly abstract win/lose system and somewhat more detailed rules on resolving unit combat. Unfortunately, by the rules there is little way for an individual character's skill to effect the outcome of a battle or even their own fate.
My comments about combat are:
Chapters ten and eleven have 18 pages of GM material, including: campaign options, advice on dramatic game-mastering and specifically Tolkien-style epic drama, and rules for experience and renown awards. It strongly encourages a storytelling focus in the game, sometimes to the point of contradicting the written rules. For example, there is no mechanical penalty for wearing even heavy armor, but the advice section recommends trying to minimize wearing armor.
The real problem here, however, is lack of developed examples. It has many pages of abstract advice, such as the three-act model and purposeful scenes. However, it does not present any interesting premises for a campaign or an adventure, beyond a thin idea for a three-part "epic" defeating the Red Sorcerer of the North. Frankly, this lack makes me dubious of the value of the generic advice. Without something to show me of what they consider a good campaign or adventure, I have little reason to value the advice.
The book includes 21 various foes, including six individual characters from the books, along with 15 creature types like Orcs and Trolls. The write-ups are fairly spartan and lack some utility. For example, they do not list total skill bonus. Instead, the GM must determine which is the proper attribute for each skill and add in its modifier, as well as searching for any edges which may provide bonuses. There is a planned supplement to detail more of the creatures and races of Middle-earth.
Overall, I was disappointed in this book especially over a number of fairly basic errors. For example, the balance of edges, order abilities, and skills is fundamentally broken. Some problems were addressed in the errata, but many others were not. For example, the weapon damages are pretty screwy even after extensive errata. On the good side, the 24-page survey of lands and magic system are nicely flavorful. However, especially because of the restrictions on licensing, the book is of limited utility for Tolkien background. In short, if you are looking for a balanced and coherent game engine, then you should look elsewhere. With the errata, some rulings, and some learning, it is at least functional as the backdrop for a story-focused chronicle, but nothing more.
Compared to the previous effort (ICE's MERP from 1984), it does have some clear improvements. The basic system is simpler and faster to resolve, and the magic system is more flavorful. It also has a larger and slicker core rulebook. On the other hand, MERP has dozens of high-quality supplements covering huge amounts of background. LOTR will need a long to catch up in this department, and it will probably never even be able to due to licensing restrictions.
If you already have a preferred system with support for the fantasy genre (such as BESM, GURPS, or the Hero system), then the overhead of dealing with the new system is probably marginal for what you get in the core book. Tolkien dwarves, elves, and hobbits are likely trivial to write up in your system. The magic might be more difficult, though it is ambiguous what magic should be like in Middle-earth. If you don't mind the price you might consider this book for ideas on spells, plus a few other bits.
If you don't have a preferred system that can reasonably be adapted, and you want to play in Middle-earth, this is a fair competitor with the out-of-print ICE MERP game. Its advantage is a simpler system, while its disadvantage is lack of support. If you opt for LOTR, my top three recommendations would be: