Game: The Lord of the Rings RPG
Series: Lord of the Rings: Coda
Review Dated: 9th, September 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 37
Average Score: 7.40
There are some people who’ll tell you that whether it’s any good or not you really should buy Lord of the Rings RPG. Why? Would you dare risk having to admit in five or ten years time that you were roleplaying back in the great Lord of the Rings “revival”, when the movies where coming out and the man on the street knew who Grima Wormtongue was but that you didn’t get around to buying the brand new RPG? Sure. I can see some strength in that point but I think it is far better to buy a game because it’s good and not just because it is famous.
Thankfully, the new Lord of the Rings roleplaying game is pretty good. It’s not amazing. It isn’t the one game to rule them all. It is pretty good. Quite a few people I’ve talked to laboured under the impression that it’s a d20 product. It’s not. I think this is a good thing. It’s not wise to put all your eggs in the one basket, or in the case, all your famous fantasy worlds in one rule system. I don’t think the magic of Middle Earth suits the levels of magic spells in the d20 system either and as you’ll read in this review I think one of the most notable successes in the game is Decipher‘s treatment of magic.
Decipher choose to make a song and dance about the pictures in the book. The game is chock full with photographs from the movie. I don’t see why this is supposed to be a good thing. I didn’t like the idea at all and assumed straight away it was a licensing requirement from the various companies with the rights to Lord of the Ring’s merchandise. The inclusion of photographs is better than I worried about, there are few glossy pictures that look incredibly out of place and in fact most of the images have their borders blurred and faded so to reduce any glaring contrasts between bold colour pictures and text. I do think there is some struggle to avoid being reduced to a photo gallery though; the full page pictures do look striking but they also suggest to me that this is the roleplaying game based on the movie and not the roleplaying game based on the books. I’d rather be playing the latter. I do mean “movie” and not “movies”. There are some small pictures that seem to be scenery from the Two Towers or perhaps the Return of the King but all the main photographs, certainly of the key characters, are from the Fellowship of the Rings. We’ve got pictures of Gandalf and Bilbo but nothing for Gollum or Treebeard. This dates the game more than I would like. It makes me wonder whether we’ll see a reprint or a revised edition in 2004. It’s a hardback book and at over 300 pages it has that satisfying heavy tome feel and that’s especially suited to Lord of the Rings. It’s an incredibly colourful roleplaying game; with all the pictures from the Fellowship of the Rings movie it could hardly be anything else. Another interesting formatting and layout note is that the text appears in three columns per page rather than the usual two columns. Cartography fans will appreciate the Middle Earth map but probably, like me, bemoan the fact that so many important and interesting places on it are lost to the book’s spine in the double page spread.
The game begins with “There and Back Again”, a chapter named after Bilbo’s book, and introduces the reader to places of note in Middle Earth. Simply put, There and Back Again is the best section in the entire game; it leans more heavily on original Tolkien than any other chapter can and benefits hugely from this. There and Back Again works around the compass and visits places in each cardinal point in alphabetical order. There’s a chronological index too, we’re not limited to information and observations on the location as it stood in the late Third Age of Middle Earth as it was just before the War of the Ring. Not every single location has records that span back to the First Age and then forwards in time and into the Fourth Age but those with interesting changes or observations to make are described in this detail. For example, in the Mirkwood reference, we’re told that it’s some 400 miles long and 200 miles wide, that it was once known as Greenwood the Great but early in the Third Age, as Sauron raised Dol Guldor and the Orcs moved in that it became corrupt and known as Mirkwood. We’re also told that the forces of Lórien managed to repulse attacks from Dol Guldur during the War of the Ring and that afterwards Celeborn and Galadriel destroyed Dol Guldur, that Celeborn and Thranduil then renamed it Lasgalen, the Wood of Greenleaves. It’s quite common to read how noteworthy individuals changed places, renamed them, ruled them or destroyed them. This style of Tolkien mythology is not only successfully recaptured here but also in a core game mechanic of “Renown”. I think it’s great. There and Back Again is a great section to get your teeth straight into the world and a good way to brush up on your Middle Earth history. The game begins with neither character generation nor system mechanics but this should only put off those gamers previously limited to cheese fantasy RPGs.
Character generation follows swiftly afterwards though. Throughout the book you can see Decipher trying hard to make the game appealing veteran roleplayers and yet approachable by newbies. You’ll see this clearly here where players are offered up a collection of pre-made characters (with the only illustrations in the book) ready for play. The section isn’t really a whole chapter, it doesn’t have a chapter introduction and in the table of contents is put into chapter one along with There and Back Again even though it’s clearly more to do with character creation than the world of Middle Earth. Character generation begins in for real in “Might and Majesty” the next official chapter in the book. This is Decipher’s Coda game system. The character attributes will entirely familiar to roleplayers; a core set of attributes such as Perception and Strength and then derived secondary attributes such as Willpower and Wisdom. I don’t want to get too far into the nitty-gritty of the Coda system in the review (which reviews the game, not the mechanics) but I think it’s worth pointing out that you pick the best of two core attribute modifiers in order to set your secondary attribute. For example, pick between either Strength or Vitality in order to set your Stamina. I like this; immediately you’re over-coming some of those strange roleplaying character sheet quirks where you can design someone who could life a horse but fall over wounded if it sneezed. It’s also worth noting the prominence given to Renown. Typically, many RPGs leave fame or renown to a background or by-the-way trait. Even in games where characters struggle to gain renown the actual rule system and stat are left until later. I’m not a fan of crunchy mechanics but I think Decipher have done well by putting Renown forward in the way they have since it is a solid reflection of the Tolkien and Middle Earth style. It also makes for a better in-game motivation for character actions. Why would a Gondorian warrior take such risks? Not for the experience points – that would make no in-game sense, experience points mean nothing, but Renown is something the characters and NPCs can talk about when describing the same Gondorian warrior.
Chapter three appears as “The Free Peoples” and is a list of the races available to characters. Ents appear only in a side bar. The Decipher rule is that these creatures so rarely leave their woods and are “unhasty” in nature that they do make for a suitable player character race. They’re probably right. There will be disappointed fans though. Your character race will influence your attributes. True to Tolkien (again – which is good) the bloodline of your particular race also affects your attributes. Dwarfs of Balin’s Colony have a different set of modifiers than those from the Blue Mountains, Hobbits of the Baggins family have a different set of modifiers than those of the Brandybuck family and a Rider of Rohan has different modifiers from men from Minas Tirith. I like this. It adds an extra element of character history to the PCs. If you want to get the benefits of a Southron Tribesman then straight away you’ve got this piece of background for your character, a bit a flesh to hang to the bones of the skeletal character sheet. Elves could have been a problem, Tolkien’s elves are often nearly all-but angelic in Middle Earth, some more so than others, but the presented stats for Elves leave them playable and nearly on par with the other player races. Nearly. It helps that the true men of Middle Earth are sometimes more than the human race we know about; Aragorn, of pure Dúnadan blood lived for more than 200 years. Age is an issue but age is also succinctly addressed in the character generation rules.
The Coda system is level-less, there’s no such thing as a level 7 barbarian but it’s not class-less. There are barbarians. These classes are known as “Orders” and come in two forms: basic and elite. Users of other class system will recognise an elite order as something of a prestige class. These Orders fit well with Middle Earth; they’re not so much inventions of Decipher as references pulled from the works of Tolkien. Good. I was pleased to see “Mariner” as a basic order. Too many games miss out anything naval and yet travelling overseas (albeit often in the background) appear often in the original Middle Earth books. The role of each Order is explained in terms of their role in the world and their effect on game mechanics. Different Orders have a different range of skills and special abilities available to them.
The skills are fairly generic, especially the Lore system which teeters on the edge of being overloaded. In “Ringing Anvils and Rhymes of Lore” the full list, specialities, groups of skills (such as languages) are all spelt out. There isn’t a huge list of skills but there’s plenty of text and help given over to each skill. On average, each skill has half a page of help and description for it and they frequently include a small chart of sample Target Numbers required to meet success levels in using the skill. For example, the Appraise skill (Wits based) suggests that a Simple use (TN 5) would be to judge every day market purchases whereas a Virtually Impossible use (TN 25) would be to evaluate an unique object such as a fragment of Aiglos.
There is a separate chapter for Edges and Flaws. Advantages and disadvantages, merits and flaws, feats and limitations, call them what you want but they are increasingly a standard feature in RPGs and they’re pretty hard to do wrong. They’re pretty hard to do particularly well for that matter. Lord of the Rings stays mainstream here and makes available a typically neutral collection of Edges and Flaws, extra abilities that can add to your skill roles. As with the skills and the races previously, there is a snippet quote from the books above each Edge or Flaw and these manage to add flavour whilst defending the inclusion of the extra trait. Sometimes, though, I wonder if the authors are being too cynical by including the like of “Duty” or “Code of Honour” as a flaw and whether personality traits like “Arrogant” should be codified and rewarded mechanically.
“Words of Power and Runes of Might” is the chapter name for the magic system. I think this is one the main successes of the book. Magic in Middle Earth is subtle and this is spelt out in crystal clear terms in this chapter. Gandalf does not throw fireballs at the attacking goblins in the Mines of Moria and neither can your PC magician. In addition to the standard approach of chanting out magical words and making suitable gestures with hands, wizards and magicians have the extra options of casting a spell through a Rune or a Song. The dwarf runes and the elf songs deserved to be put in the core rulebook and not a money-spinning supplement. Effectively, these two extra styles increase the casting time but increase the duration or the effect of the magic. There is a forth style of magic – sorcery, which is inherently evil. The use of it by player characters will start the process of corruption towards the Shadow and the appearance of “Corruption Points” on the character sheet. There is also a set of spell specialities; “Air and Storm”, “Beasts and Birds”, “Fire, Smoke and Light”, “Secret Fire”, “Sorcery” and “Water”. Actually, these are just suggested categories, its up to players and GMs (sorry, the Narrator) to work out what the PCs or NPCs might use but this isn’t explicitly stated anywhere. Taken from the Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf said to the Balrog;
” `You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still and a silence fell. `I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun. Go back to the Shadow. You cannot pass!'”
It’s good that Decipher is trying to get this important speech into the game. I think they’re wrong. I think the Secret Fire is more than that but at least they’re trying. Perhaps more importantly than the spell system and the short list of possible spells magic using PCs can actually use in the game is all the information given over on how magic works within the land of Middle Earth. If something’s supposed to happen then it often does – for example, the weather is likely to be bright and clear on a King’s coronation or when Sauron’s army begins to grow in the East then so does a dark storm. If two elves proclaim their undying love to one another in a woodland grove then flowers might bloom there.
From here, the book runs into the standard equipment section and then into the mechanics of the Coda system (2d6 + score versus Target Number). After Coda there’s help in running a game (a Chronicle) and perhaps more usefully help on trying to run a game in the different time periods the Middle Earth books cover. Decipher tells us that most of their supplements will be set in the late Third Age but before the War of the Ring begins. The book finished with “The Fear and the Shadow” which briefly looks at Sauron, and Saruman the White in more detail but really is here to give us the stats we need for orcs, trolls and spiders. For a bestiary it’s rather short and may leave some GMs worrying about the lack of possible combat encounters but this is really a reflection of Middle Earth than Decipher’s attempt to produce the game. If they’re attempted to give stats for Sauron (in the way some fantasy games produce book after book with stats for Thor or Ra) I would have shaken my fist but instead they move to appease the non-crunchy fans among us and simply state “For obvious reasons, no game statistics are provided for the Dark Lord. He is not a foe with whom even the greatest of heroes can grapple. If player characters oppose him directly or are captured and brought before him, they have lost.”
I’ll admit to having doubts about the book before it arrived in the post. There was no way it’ll ever be as good as the books. Decipher managed to win me around slightly and I quite enjoyed reading their offering. Lord of the Rings is an epic and this version of the roleplaying game addresses that by taking a step back and being generic, by providing simple rules to cover a wide range of things and by leaving the players and Narrator to interpret any details they see worthy of interpretation as they see fit. The opposite way to approach the scale of Middle Earth is to produce highly detailed rules with table after table and rule clause after rule clause. This latter way is very much, I feel, how ICE‘s MERP went. If you loved the detail of MERP then you may well hate Coda. If you hated tripping over imaginary deceased turtles or cutting off your foot with a botched dagger roll then you’ll be glad to see Coda pushing MERP aside.
In the end, Decipher makes the important stages. This Lord of the Rings game feels like a Lord of the Rings game. Middle Earth feels like and reads like the Middle Earth it should be. The game is written so newcomers can play and I think experienced gamers will adapt to it to – but there will be need to adapt. If you’re only buying one game this year then a look at Lord of the Rings is a must; not because it’s a great game, a movie or a famous book but because it’s a good game which benefits hugely from the wonderful setting of the great books.