I'll admit to a certain bias when it comes to the Lord of the Rings!" RPG. I'm an unabashed fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and the source material, and that makes me hard to please. Of course, when it comes to Tolkien fans, I'm a lightweight. I loved the movie, and I think Tolkien himself would have loved it, too. I don't hang on every word of The Lord of the Rings religiously; some parts of the thing are just turgid, for crying out loud, and it often leaves the best bits to conjecture. (Supposedly in the film The Two Towers we'll see first-hand the Ents' attack on Isengard -- which is great, because Tolkien himself relegated it to a couple of lines of dialog after the fact.) But I am a fan of Tolkien, and I think any game that puts his name on the cover owes it to the man's legacy and accomplishments to do it right.
Naturally I hated Middle Earth Roleplaying (MERP), Iron Crown Enterprises' long-lived first attempt to capitalize on the Tolkien license in gaming. While often well-researched, MERP set out to fill in the blanks of Tolkien's world with their own home-grown characters and concepts, without ever deigning to let the purists know which was which. The Witch-king's name was Murazor, according to MERP, and one of the other Nazgul was Dwar the Dog-lord, etcetera, without so much as a footnote to say "This part is all us -- if you drop it, you don't have to feel guilty!"
What's more, MERP forced The Lord of the Rings into the Rolemaster game engine, as chart- and dice- and numbers-driven a system as ever a right-brained Tolkien fan was forced to digest. Rolemaster bragged that its vaunted critical hit system evened things up between the mightiest warrior and the lowliest hobbit, but the game was just lousy at emulating Tolkien's stories. The action in play had little in common with what we read in the books -- and if you don't believe me, try having a close call with the Balrog in MERP and see how many of your third-level hobbits manage to escape to the light of day.
Worst of all, the most dramatic settings of Middle-earth were usually reduced to dungeon crawls in MERP. The supplement on the Witch-king's realm might have included a nice essay on the history of Angmar and the kingdoms of the north -- seamlessly combining Tolkien's painstaking material with whatever the supplement's author pulled off the top of his head, of course -- but the citadels and towns themselves were straight out of 1970s Dungeons and Dragons: numbered rooms with monsters, gold, and countless magic items.
In other words, the first RPG based directly on The Lord of the Rings never looked or played all that much like The Lord of the Rings. It looked and played like D&D, with more confusing rules and a few Rings names tossed in for flavor.
With the release of The Fellowship of the Ring in theatres, the Tolkien gaming license went to Decipher, best known at the time for their collectible card games and active pursuit of high-profile licenses: Decipher has a number of Star Wars and Star Trek card games, the new Star Trek RPG, and a line of Lord of the Rings card games as well. They put Steven S. Long -- longtime writer for and now apparently bigshot of Hero Games, which bought Iron Crown, which of course lost the Lord of the Rings license to Decipher; sometimes, this industry makes my head hurt -- at the helm of their Lord of the Rings RPG, with a crew of talented writers behind him. Interestingly, Decipher's game has some of the same flaws as Iron Crown's; but it's saved by a crucial difference. Decipher's team set out to make sure the Lord of the Rings RPG would play like The Lord of the Rings.
That distinction is made most clear in a long, excellent chapter on themes and campaign styles, back in the latter third of the book where such stuff usually gets crammed, and in the way magic is handled in the game.
The Lord of the Rings is the quintessential fantasy epic, and the RPG acknowledges that its epic feel is what most players will want to relive. Even if they don't want to actually play Frodo and Strider, they will want to get a sense of the grandeur of the mountains and towers, the grim blight of Sauron's lands, and the terrible consequences that a key decision can have for good or ill. The RPG includes lengthy tips for capturing that tone.
And, like Tolkien himself, the game makes explicit certain assumptions about good and evil. There are no D&D-style alignments, but the influence of evil tells in your character, particularly in "Corruption" points which can influence your interactions with others. It seems quaint these days to quantify a character's moral state, but there's no separating Tolkien's work from his morality -- one of the things which his most vociferous critics abhor -- and the game would be wrong to ignore it. A character far gone to evil is rarely unsalvageable, but once they are, that’s it; like Call of Cthulhu and its Sanity stat, once you rack up too much Corruption, your character is too irredeemable to feature as a hero. Hand the sheet to the gamemaster and start a new one.
In designing the way the game handles magic, the writers started from Tolkien, not from some pre-existing fantasy game's spellcasting system. They openly encourage the gamemaster to use magic the way Tolkien used magic: not sparingly, but subtly. The game encourages you to let the world of Middle-earth itself respond to the actions of its heroes and villains, not just as a plot device but as an active, unseen participant in the narrative. Likewise, the magical powers of elves, wizards, and sorcerers are delineated with insight as to their nature and detailed explanations of the uses to which they are put. I'll admit I rather dislike the notion, suggested in the game without any reference to Tolkien to back it up, that human magicians (or dwarf, or whatever) might join the order of Wizards along with Gandalf and Saruman and their ilk; but the ways in which mortal and immortal magic are handled jibes with the metaphysics of Middle-earth.
Ironically, though, in some ways The Lord of the Rings RPG still feels like you're playing glorified D&D. Like Iron Crown before it, Decipher insisted on fitting most of the game into its existing rules set, the "Coda" system -- and the Coda system is quite directly based on the D20 rules of the new Dungeons and Dragons. There are orders (not classes), advancements (not levels), skills (just skills -- nobody's found a decent synonym for "skills"), and attributes (not abilities); to succeed at an action, you roll 2D6 plus modifiers for your attribute and skill level and compare it to a Target Number, or TN (not Difficulty Class, or DC). Health (not hit points) works a little differently, which is nice -- none of the trusty invincibility of high-level D&D characters -- and weapons are built to let you emulate the action of The Lord of the Rings: knives are not much less dangerous than longswords, so your Legolas clone doesn't have to feel like a chump carrying one around. But in the end, a Lord of the Rings character looks suspiciously like a D&D character, and the similarities multiply when the dice start flying. This makes the excellent gamemastering guidelines all the more valuable -- the common-sense, explicit tips on running Lord of the Rings games will help players avoid that dungeon-crawling, tomb-looting style of play. (Although, granted, liberating a long-lost treasure from a bandit's or troll's stash is always going to be fun.)
In the interest of keeping up with the Joneses -- in this case Games Workshop, which has the license to Lord of the Rings miniatures combat games -- the RPG has a chapter to help you simulate the inevitable epic battles that punctuate any decent epic game. It abstracts things to the level of a few dice rolls, adopting a system -- suspiciously similar to that of an old Mayfair "Role Aids" supplement I once owned -- that allows you to resolve the overall battle only in the most general sense and then roll to see if your character ran into any particular trouble that might kill him or make him a hero.
Speaking of heroes, I have one unadulterated complaint about The Lord of the Rings game: Where are the stats for the Fellowship?! Sure, we get stats for the Balrog, for your average orc and warg and werewolf, even for Saruman, and a few second-rate sample characters -- but no stats for Sam Gamgee, or Gimli, or Gandalf? What if we want to play the Fellowship, maybe do a what-if game that starts at the Council of Elrond and heads off in a new direction? We have to wait and buy a supplement? Bad form.
Still, Decipher and Long and company deserve high marks. They accomplished their most important goal: This Lord of the Rings game actually feels like The Lord of the Rings. For fans like me, that makes it more than worth the purchase.