The One Ring: First Impressions and Derpening of Mirkwood, Part 1

Finally, after much hemming and hawing and unselling myself last year, we are starting The One Ring. We have four characters done but only three players could make the first session: an Elf warden (who is terrible at being social and she’s kind of a douchebag), a Hobbit wanderer (brilliantly on-point as a curious little fellow who gets everyone else in trouble while somehow dodging misfortune), and a Barding scholar (trussed up as a badass knight, which he totally isn’t in practice).

The session was a complete run through Stay on the Path from Tales from Wilderland plus the campaign-level material for Year 2947 in Darkening of Mirkwood. They started in Lake-Town, got a Barding merchant and his son out of trouble, and were hired to escort them through Mirkwood via the Elf-Path out of Thandruil’s halls. Hilarity ensues!

My goal was to get through the entire journey and have a Fellowship Phase at the end. I did it! But it took cutting the final encounter out of Path. Honestly they were so beat up that it was a good “seriously, Mirkwood is a shithole” lesson without being totally punishing.


So I’m … not really a fan of Tolkien’s written work. I thought Lord of the Rings made a way-better movie trilogy than a book trilogy. I kind of even liked The Hobbit movies although I was super-bored by the third and its fifteen separate endings. Haven’t read the texts themselves (and never The Silmarillion) since high school. There, I said it.

I went into running The One Ring relying entirely on the system itself to generate the Tolkienness. My working theory is that if the system failed to do so, then it’s just dressing up a plain old traddy game and it’s really not worth my time. For the record, I have the same approach to running Tenra Bansho Zero: I actually kind of hate anime, but the game performs well on its own merits so I really enjoy it (mostly because players are infinitely less spazzy than anime characters).

TOR delivers the goods! There’s this underlying earnestness throughout everything that’s really charming: when you meet with an NPC, there’s always a formal introduction (Awe if you’re bragging about yourself, Courtesy if you’re being polite, Riddle if you’re being guarded). You can sing or cook as the interaction. There’s kind of a basic assumption, certainly ahistorical but very Tolkien, that anyone who’s an enemy of the Enemy is probably okay so let’s put aside our prejudices.

The Journey phase is grindy and stressful and just about perfect, despite tracking only Shadow/Hope and Fatigue/Endurance (rather than ticking off supplies; it’s abstracted out into “hazards”). I’m thus far unsold on the narrative posturing around Hazards, though, I gotta say. You can describe the hunter wearing herself out chasing small game on the Elf-Path, but it really just boils down to the Hunting roll with a Weary consequence for failure. My understanding is that the Hazard scene is constrained to that single roll, rather than spooling off into a whole big event. That said, Combat phases are played out fully and Encounter phases are played out fully (but only when they’re injected into the journey for plot reasons; I don’t think Encounters ever happen procedurally). So I just kind of shrugged and rolled with it. Which is fine! Don’t get me wrong. The vibe is similar to the stalking one does in Mutant: Year Zero but less likely to generate any additional fiction.

We had a big fight against some spiders, an encounter with a mad hermit, and some quality time with the Silvan elves. Session felt complete and satisfying.


Okay, I definitely experienced the most good surprises around Traits. Traits in TOR are used for three things: earning an automatic (ordinary) success, justifying Advancement Point earns on successful rolls, and narrative interrupts. I totally discounted just how powerful the interrupts would be!

Something all my players have told me they continue to miss about Burning Wheel is that roleplaying problematic character stuff is a way to engage the reward cycle: if you’re Curious and create a whole scene around your curiosity dragging you off to explore something, you get paid. Well, so there is a similar-ish reward cycle buried in TOR’s Traits as well! If you’re Curious (like the Hobbit is), you can interrupt a scene to do something that your curiosity demands (for example). If you’re Proud (like the Barding is), you can interrupt the normal social niceties of elvish courtesy. And so on. That feels more like Burning Wheel than I expected, I have to say: rather than getting a fungible currency for later use, you’re getting fictional benefits right now. You can’t keep score with it (like some players do in BW, via end of session artha tallies) but there’s a similar little serotonin hit for engaging your roleplaying bits.

There’s also this thing where earning Advancement Points gets harder and harder throughout the adventure. It’s very subtle and maybe one of the game’s killer apps: the skills are arranged into six skill groups, and you earn APs by skill group. The first point is just for succeeding at one of the skills in the group, the second is succeeding either with a “great” or “extraordinary” success (ie how many 6es you rolled – it’s totally an intermittent reward, Vegas-style and psychologically very powerful) or if you can point at one of your Traits after the fact, and the third is for both rolling one or more 6es and invoking a Trait after the fact. So if you want to earn AP, you shape your fiction around your Traits. That’s solid and smart, although it also leads to inevitable AP grubbing and trying to stretch Traits too far. GMing this game sometimes means being a strict parent.

Misdeeds and the Modern Mind

My other surprise, not so good as the Trait surprise, was in how Misdeeds play out. Okay so you can earn Shadow points in uh…five ways, right? Bad shit that happens to you (nobody’s fault), wandering around blighted lands (like Mirkwood!), owning tainted treasure, letting your Focus character get hurt, and via Misdeeds. Misdeeds aren’t rolled: if you do a bad thing, you’ve done the bad thing and you get a Shadow point. In the other cases, there’s a Corruption test where your Wisdom can resist the influence of the Shadow.

Okay, so. Many of you probably see where I’m going with this. This system requires the GM adjudicate just what exactly a Misdeed is. In some cases, the list is pretty explicit: threatening people, lying (again that Tolkienesque earnestness!), stealing. You know, basically standard Tabletop Roleplaying Adventurer bullshit. But in other cases, whoo boy. Get ready for some very interesting conversations.

The big one last night was the nature of cowardice. It’s a Misdeed worth 3 Shadow, which is very punitive. The scene basically is: the caravan owner has wandered off into Mirkwood toward some ruins and the Company needs him back. The Elf warden leaps into action! The Barding wants to stay on the path (as ordered by his new bestie back at Thandruil’s hall) and insists the Hobbit stay back as well. 

So is that cowardice or sensible? Is cowardice the absence of bravery? Is bravery the absence of cowardice? Does it matter what your motives for a decision are? From the player and I assume character’s POV, staying back with the caravan to protect both the goods and the merchant’s son is absolutely reasonable. From the audience – ie me — POV it looks like self-preservation. It doesn’t help that the Barding is actually sort of terrible in combat.

When I called it cowardice, oh lord the pushback. The player was not happy. He reads my posts sometimes so I hope I’m being fair in my characterization. So anyway, later, when there are spiders fucking pouring out of these Mirkwood ruins and the characters are thinking about withdrawing, and I don’t call out the first one to escape for cowardice, he throws his hands up in disgust. Something along the lines of “oh so he can run away but refusing to run willy-nilly into this is cowardice?” You can imagine, I’m sure.

Ultimately this resulted in a super fruitful conversation. It also was, for me in the aftermath, unsatisfying. Because it feels like modern, rational, materialistic and pragmatic values grinding up against these older, perhaps irrational values. My practical solution is to turn decisions about misdeeds over to the table and let everyone agree that something is cowardice (or an abuse of authority, or manipulation). 

Company Goals

Company goals work as advertised. I felt myself wishing for a more robust Experience Point system other than “did you show up” and “did you chase the thing you said you wanted to chase?” Although the company goal did help everyone stay on-task for at least one scene, maybe more. It’s there, a very subtle little nudge.

There’s this rule about “bonus XPs” at the end of an adventure phase but whoever wrote those rules is bad at math: it’s just a multiplier on the number of sessions, which uh…that’s the same as “did you show up?” So instead of 1 XP per session, it’s really 1.5 XP. I don’t know how else to read that so I just shrugged.

Hope: Threat or Menace?

I thought the Hope economy was way loose: the players had 4 Fellowship points (3 characters + 1 hobbit) and they really leveraged the “free Hope spend when you’re helping your Focus character” rule. Which, by the way, I really loved in practice at its most visible – that is, when everyone’s fighting and the Defensive stance folks can spend Hope to pull attacks onto them. It felt like Hope was a slower burn than I expected; only the Elf became Miserable this session, although everyone was close-ish by the time they got to the Fellowship phase. 

The players, however, felt like Hope was tight as hell and really scary. One player told me that nearly every spend of Hope was a calculus of “can I reach a Sanctuary in time to take care of this Shadow? How far down can I burn my Hope?” So probably the truth is somewhere in the middle: it’s not as terrifying as it seems but Shadow will creep up on you. Just not within a single session. 

Bleeding off Shadow at a sanctuary – the characters wintered at Woodman’s Hall (I gave them the sanctuary for free for returning Wolfbiter to them) – made me realize that more Adventure Phase time probably needs to happen between Fellowship Phases. But I really wanted to run through one complete cycle in an evening, which we did. Future sessions will certainly see more time, at the very least so they have time to actually accumulate spendable experience points.

Final Thoughts

Overall the cognitive load of the game isn’t terrible. Much lighter weight than Burning Wheel, maybe a tad more involved than Mutant: Year Zero. There are enough new-school twists buried in an otherwise old-school game that everyone will take a few sessions to really ease into the game and feel fluent. Every player forgot about or misused their various blessings, virtues and traits at one point or another, and that’s fine. Reaching a Sanctuary and having a Fellowship phase on the first session definitely felt like the right decision, so that everyone can see the full cycle of play.

I enjoyed it! I think actually I enjoyed it more than I thought. And there are now enough leads and ideas after session one that I think it won’t be hard to open the game up a bit and start adding sand to the sandbox.

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34 thoughts on “The One Ring: First Impressions and Derpening of Mirkwood, Part 1”

  1. Reading this post makes me realize how much I’ve completely missed on my reading and playing of this game. I know I’ve been doing Advancement points wrong, but I’m not sure it’s ever spelled out quite so clearly as your summary here. And whoah nellie am I ever under-using Shadow.

  2. Adam D A side note: I’ve very gently modified the Advancement Point system. My triggers are correct as described, but instead of making the players mark points in order, they can check off points as they qualify for them. So if the first time the elf rolls a Movement group skill (Stealth, say) and gets a 6 and can invoke the Mirkwood-lore trait? Hell, go ahead and mark that third dot. 

    It’s a tiny bit of generosity that I think makes advancement feel a little faster and more fun and maybe less arbitrary. Waiting for 6es to come up is already intermittent enough IMO.

  3. Fantastic de-brief as usual, Paul. And that the game generates its own Tolkien-ness is probably the highest praise possible. Cool!

    So if you want to earn AP, you shape your fiction around your Traits.

    I think I understand this; is it like in BW jockeying for tests or playing to one’s BITs? A TOR player can play to their Traits, but the degree of success thing is just random, though?

  4. It’s absolutely my favorite game of the decade, and I’m including some games that I really, really adore. I’ve been waiting for the player’s guide to come out before revisiting, but that may not happen. I’m wrapping 5e in another couple months, then we’re going to hit Dracula’s Dossier, but then, oh then… I’ve already told my players to be ready for a good two years of TOR.

  5. Great writeup Paul.

    Luckily the production value on this one is high enough to place it firmly beyond my splurge-for-the-heck-of-it price barrier. Otherwise…

  6. Mark Delsing yeah, that’s it exactly. The Traits loom large in pretty much every transaction.

    One other very interesting thing I meant to mention is the fact that literally everything you’ll do in the game is explicitly a Journey, a Combat, or an Encounter. Which is why you don’t really have procedurally generated scenes of derring-do (like the hunter chasing a rabbit, then falling down a hill, then discovering a barrow, then fighting a ghost…). I mean that might happen (it’d be a Combat scene) but that’s the GM injecting that scene into a Journey. But otherwise, yeah, literally everything is pigeonholed into one of those three modes of engagement. And Trait use kind of follows that (although I believe you can’t actually use Traits for auto successes in a Combat phase…can’t remember…).

  7. Yeah no Traits as auto combat successes. That would be way, way OP.

    I like that everything is neatly compartmentalized. I describe it as almost a board game/RPG hybrid because of that and tell my players to adjust their expectations on some things. Mostly they’re good, though I had one player who could not wrap his head around the fact that setting up traps ahead of combat was represented by the extra advantage dice in an encounter, not doing tons of damage or whatever.

  8. Hey, Paul Beakley  So, wait. What is the disconnect with the Hazards?  To me it feels very similar to the way Mouse Guard GM phase works, only you have to come up with the Hazard on the fly, when the roll comes up. I love the sample Hazards in Tales from Wilderland. It’d probably be a good idea to copy those and the examples on the book into a table or something, and to model your own on the Tales examples, which seem to be better fleshed out. Hazard triggers, describe what happens and assign consequences of failure if any. 
    Just like in Mouse Guard (or Torchbearer), the idea with the Hazard is to deplete player resources on the Adventuring phase, as they can’t be recovered easily until the Fellowship phase.
    Is your complaint that they don’t lead to further storytelling? Yeah. I guess they’re meant as short encounters.  Except note that one of the failure consequences is to actually trigger an encounter. 

    What did you think of the combat system? It’s a little difficult to get used to at first, but once you get the procedure (check the D12 first. Is it Piercing? Test Protection. If there’s a wound, monster is down. Otherwise, check degrees of success and apply Endurance loss) 
    Once everyone ‘gets it’, it just flies. I like the balance of old school hitpoints with possible wounds to end combat quickly. I love that the players decide how to handle the encounter, by choosing their stance. I love the automation of the monsters’ special abilities. 
    My only gripe is the fact that the TN’s aren’t calculated beforehand. So I took my pdfs, compiled all the monster stat blocks, printed it out and wrote the TN’s by combat stance for each enemy… 
    P.S. Been looking forward to your post game report all day. And I love that you’ve got Ara Kooser    all fired up and posting about TOR too. 😀

  9. Eloy Cintron​​ the problem with Hazards is that they’re fictionally meaningless. They’re a board game thing, not an rpg thing.

    In Mouse Guard, you get twists on failure and you have to deal with them in the fiction. And if you fail those, then there’s something else to deal with (or a condition). And whatever happens in the fiction had changed the situation for the characters. That doesn’t happen with a Hazard. It’s just a description. It doesn’t change the company’s situation that the lookout (say) climbed a tree and saw a shortcut and then went down that shortcut and then got jumped by orcs and then discovered the orcs had hostages etc etc

  10. Ahhh. Gotcha. Yes. You’re right. It’s all smoke and mirrors and only there to deplete your resources for upcoming combat events. Otherwise, no fictional consequences.

    Also: re Hope and Shadow- my first impression was like that of your players. Seemed really tight and severe. I need more playing time to see how it actually works in the lo

  11. For all the comparisons to BW, I find myself wondering why you aren’t playing just that. The Burning Wheel is the single best Middle Earth roleplaying game out there, IMHO. The book is advetised as “setting-less”, but if you really look at the lifepaths, it’s perfect for Middle Earth. Best Tolkien-esque orcs, elves and dwarves I’ve seen yet.

  12. Dean Baker I’d argue that the goals/focus of the two games are different. The focus on teamwork alone in TOR would make for a very different experience, IMO.

  13. Dean Baker because I’ve played BW for many years and it’s not what I feel like playing right now. Different systems do different things. System matters.

    You might be new to my collection! So let me point out that my interest in favorite-system partisanship is extremely low.

  14. Oh, I am not a BW fanboy, by any means. I enjoy it a great deal, and it is by far one of my favorite systems, but it has its flaws and I find myself playing other games these days myself. I was just stating my opinion, that BW does Tolkien extremely well.

    As far as the focus goes, you’re right, the teamwork aspect of TOR is really cool. Maybe something that could be drifted into D&D or other systems too, sounds like a solid idea. I might argue, however, that teamwork wasn’t really one of the themes in LotR. The characters all seemed to be following their personal beliefs more than anything. And when teamwork really got important, such as with Sam and Frodo, it was almost entirely emotionally driven. Hence why I’d choose BW for an authentic Tolkien experience.

  15. Huh…I had something sassy to say off the cuff about authenticity. Let me say instead that it’s not on my list of things I care about when choosing a game.

  16. I think Paul’s comment regarding TOR being able to produce a Tolkienesque experience despite him not being particularly steeped in Tolkien himself says more than anything else on the topic. If the system does that right out of the box (as it should) then that’s strong. For me, BW doesn’t do that. Out of the box it provides some very Tolkienesque demihuman components to play with but it sort of ends there.

  17. Ara Kooser Huh! I have Rivendell but haven’t read it that closely. Are they proposing that failed Hazard tests can become full-blown scenes-with-consequences? Interesting. Now you can wear the characters down even further.

  18. Yeah, RAW doesn’t actually seem to support that approach. I think it’s by design, so that the adventure doesn’t become about the Journey, rather the Journey just tenderizes the meat before you start cooking. 

    That said, it’d be trivially easy to turn Hazards into scenes-with-fictional-consequences. You just leave off the mechanical consequences, play the scene out as a scene. Although there’s no actual procedural support for anything that isn’t an Encounter or a Combat, so there’s that. To my eye, that’s an important wrinkle to the system.

    The core book play examples themselves, and of course the entirety of Tales, contradicts this — there are plenty of scenes that are “just roleplaying” and not obviously part of the journey/combat/encounter trifecta. So tbh I’m not sure what the designers’ intent is here. I speculate this is another of their developmental blind spots (i.e. everyone knows “how to play an RPG”).

  19. Paul, I’d love to hear more about your experience with Encounters, here or elsewhere. The one time I ran TOR the one Encounter we had felt like a lot of die-rolling, with the same skills over and over. But I don’t know if I was doing it correctly or not.

    I want to approach them like DoW, but I’m guessing that’s wrong.

  20. Yeah, so Encounters. 

    I think it’s a weird system. For those who don’t know TOR yet:

    Formally, you start with an intent — what do you want out of this encounter? — and then everyone rolls their Insight to generate bonus dice going into it. Then you have an introduction, and that says whether you’re allowed to interact or not. And then you’ve got Tolerance, which basically sets how many times you can fail before you tally up your successes. Then you start making rolls. And then you measure your successes against your intent. 

    One hopes/assumes you’re actually fitting fiction in around those rolls. I don’t know that I could stand a scene of folks just grinding out Courtesy and Inspire and Song for 15 minutes. But mechanically that’s kind of what’s going on. The fact that you tally successes until you run out their Tolerance, and use that to evaluate the outcome, is interesting and weird. I think it could basically work the same as Journeys in that the fictional consequences of the rolls matter less than if you succeeded and by how much. 

    Again, probably a developmental blind spot IMO, and you’re supposed to play through it “like an RPG”. But maybe not! The Duel of Wits can also devolve into this if you’re not careful, so I assume best practices mandates that you pay attention to what’s being said, and treat Tolerance as the company’s social hit points/body of argument.

  21. This is what I love about your analyses and write ups:

    “Yeah, RAW doesn’t actually seem to support that approach. I think it’s by design, so that the adventure doesn’t become about the Journey, rather the Journey just tenderizes the meat before you start cooking. ”

    Because as I was reading you talk about Hazards not really having fictional consequences I thought, why not? Just do it man, easy as pie. But that totally overlooks the possible design intent you mention above. You have such a stern eye on the absolute RAW where I tend to sometimes let my “everyone knows how to RPG this” bleed into my readings. Just patting you on the back here.

  22. Okay, just read up on Encounter rules again. It’s like a one sided DoW. We kind of messed up this part when we played, so looking forward to future discussion on this as well as Ara’s report on his game.

  23. Eloy Cintron right?

    The game is enormously weirder than it seems if you take the text at its word. Which is why I speculate that you’re meant to overlay those specific instructions atop “how you play an rpg.”

  24. Yeah. I honestly haven’t tried to look at the game outside my own how to roleplay preconceptions, but I try hard to look at new games and play them strictly RAW, before I start trying to tinker with them. Sometimes, though, it gets confusing when you start approaching stuff like the Encounters, while stuff like DoW is in the back of your mind the whole time.

  25. This is all super interesting to read. I’m starting my regular group on Tales from Wilderland next week and they’re all super stoked to play! I think I’m skipping Don’t Leave the Path and ploughing straight into Of Stewed Leaves.

  26. Andrew Kenrick hey, you actually work on these things, don’t you? Do you have any insights? I mean, am I just completely misreading the game in some fundamental way?

  27. Paul Beakley I’ve edited the line from the revised edition onwards, so yes! I’ve never ran Tales from Wilderland before though, which is why my (non-affiliated) group is playing it with me.

    I’m mostly just reading along here, not wanting to interfere! I’ll be sure to chime in though!

  28. Andrew Kenrick cool man. I’ll be reporting in on future sessions too. 

    Hopefully you see I aim for even-handed, not righteous entitled nerd fury. (I save that for very special occasions.)

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