The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game
The first thing I have to say about this game is that it is absolutely gorgeous! A hardback book with 304 full color pages, this RPG has a stunning layout. Nearly every page has a still image from the Fellowship of the Rings movie. The graphic design is full of color and interesting backgrounds, but they are subtle enough not to distract or obscure the text.
The book is laid out with an overview of Middle Earth first, then a section of character generation, a section on Magic, then weapons and equipment, a few chapters on Combat rules and other rules, and finally a bit on how to evoke the feel of Tolkien's world.
The overview of Middle Earth is fairly complete, detailing the places seen in the LotR books and sheding some light on those places just mentioned. Most of these descriptions are discussed how they appear at the end of the Third Age (the time of LotR), but many of the entries also include information about the beginning of the Fourth Age, during the reign of King Ellesar.
Also in this first section is a small discussion of what roleplaying is. This part was very short and not very complete. A game such as this one, which has so much appeal to non-gamers, should be designed to introduce a new gamer into the hobby. Although it does have some interesting sidebars targeted to new gamers, such as the one about creating characters as a group so that every party member has a unduplicated role, the LotR RPG utterly fails to describe the basics of roleplaying so that a newbie could pick it up, read it, and be ready to play his first game.
This lack of "user-friendliness" to new gamers is continued in Character Generation. The examples are few and more confusing than helpful, as they do things out of order and exemplify rules that have not yet been discussed. On the positive side, once I made it past these failings I was pretty impressed. The game is skill-based with a Task based resolution system. A character's skill level + governing stat + 2d6 must equal or exceed a Task Number which is set by the GM depending on the difficulty of the action. While building a character, you pick a race, and a profession (call an Order) which both give you skills and stat modifiers. They both also allow you to pick Traits (which are like Advantages and Disadvantages in other games) and Order Abilities. Each Order has about 6 Abilities that are only available to characters of that Order. A lot of thought and imagination has been put into the Abilities, Crafters can have shops, Warriors gain special combat abilities, etc. But these abilities seem to really evoke the feel of Tolkien's world.
Unfortunately, this care with the setting has not carried on into the Magic system. While the section about setting the mood for a proper campaign goes on and on about how subtle wizards should be, the spell list for wizards is something out of Dungeons & Dragons. We have Lightning Bolt spells, spells that project a beam of searing flame, Mind Control spells, and Healing spells.
I, in fact, question whether any sort of active spell casters should have been included. The only ones we see or hear of casting spells in the LotR, are the Five Wizards (the Istari) and Sauron, who are all Maiar (lesser gods or angels). The RPG claims that the Istari collected together those talented elves and mortals and taught them the secrets of magic. That is all well and good, but should these Middle-Earth wizards wield more powerful spells than the gods?
They do have rules for magic items, which seem to work fairly well, and it is obvious that many of the spells listed in the spell list are meant to be put into items. These seem to be fairly well written, with the exception that they seem too easy to create. There is even a section in the GM tips that warns GMs not to let their players churn out magic items left and right. This was done, no doubt, to allow for Crafters to be able to do something useful in the game, without having to take years away from adventuring, but this also seems to me to go against the grain of the spirit of Middle-Earth.
The combat rules seem fairly well written and easy enough to follow. The weapon lists are fairly complete although the description are very short. The combat style is definitely Epic Fantasy with many cinematic influences.
The last section of the book is the section on creating your own campaign and adventures. It also contains other tips on the art of gamemastering. The tone of this part of the book is very much trying to unlearn the reader about what he knows about the modern fantasy genre, and trying to portray Tolkien's style of Epic Fantasy. This is very well written and contains much good advice. My only problem with it was that while I was reading I kept being reminded of how the rules played against these themes.
The other thing that bothered me about this section and the game in general is that the game is very much The Lord of the Rings RPG and not The Middle-Earth RPG. This game is meant to be used to play heroic characters, against evil foes in epic surroundings. It is not designed for characters of even the slightest moral failings or petty concerns. It is intended to spotlight the vanquishing of Evil by the undermanned forces of Good, instead of focusing on playing anyone of note as they have adventures in the world of Middle-Earth. Certainly, this is the way that Tolkien would've wanted it, but I find it a bit one-dimensional.
Before I end this review, there is one additional observation of the game that I wanted to discuss, and that is women. Women are sorely under-represented in this game. We are given six sample characters in the Character Generation section. None are female. Out of the countless hundreds of pictures in the book, only two are of women - both are of Arwen. Now admittedly, LotR is lacking in female characters but that is no excuse for ignoring them entirely in the RPG.
Overall, I think that this game is well worth the high price tag of nearly $40.00. It is an invaluable source of RPG related information about J. R. R. Tokien's fascinating world. It is however, not for the neophyte roleplayer or gamemaster, and I would expect that most GMs would feel the need to make modifications to the magic system.
review by Tim
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