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I want to get started with RPGs and I want to play the Lord of the Rings and Middle-earth stories.

I'm looking for a system which is:

  • Cheap
  • Simple to learn for noobs like me, and easy for a noob to teach to other noobs
  • combat-focused
  • LOTRisable (for example, works well in a low magic setting)
  • Low-prop (I don't want to spend a lot of money on miniatures, for example)
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I think you may have to compromise a bit here. LOTR is lower-magic than any RPG systsem I have ever seen (as in, there are no human, non-villainous magic users), but players tend to like using magic. The reasons for this are interesting, but off-topic; what you will have to decide is how mch magic you want in your universe. –  TimLymington May 8 '13 at 13:06

6 Answers 6

The One Ring

Published by Cubicle 7, The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild is, afaik, the most recent and most modern rpg adaptation of Tolkien's immense world. It's a relatively simple and modern game systems-wise (and you can always decide to leave off some rules to help yourself and your players ease into them later), with both the beautiful artwork and the mechanics designed directly to conjure the feel of Tolkien's writings -- including rules for making traveling long distances interesting, and rules to bring the cultures of Middle Earth alive. There's practically no need to adapt the world to the ruleset (which you'll have to face in the case of a more generic rpg): it's been done by the writers of The One Ring.

As for cheapness: You get two softcover books (one for the storyteller, one for the players) bound in a hard cover case, a set of special dice and two maps - for about $50. And you don't really need anything else to be able to play. (Sure, there are more books for the game. But they are extras. Beautiful and cool extras. ;))

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One caveat: The pages of my softcover books started to get loose quite soon after my having purchased the game. As soon as I noticed it, I've switched to super-careful mode, so they're still together, but friends tell me their copies haven't weathered heavier use so well. But this really is just a minor nuisance. :)

Here's a review, in case you wanted to read more about it.

Update: There's now a Revised Edition of the game out there. From the game's official page:

The best place to start your adventures in Middle-earth is with the revised edition of The One Ring Roleplaying Game. The One Ring Roleplaying Game is presented as a single 336-page hardback volume that contains all the rules and background that you need to play. This edition of the game is completely compatible with all existing material for The One Ring, which means that there’s already an exciting range of supplements available ready for your adventure to begin right away.

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I like this game, but I won't say it's combat oriented. Previous LOTR games are more combat oriented than this. –  Flamma Jun 6 '13 at 15:47
    
On the good side, you won't spend money on miniatures. Combat system is so abstract that exact position of each fighter is irrelevant. –  Flamma Jun 6 '13 at 15:53

Mouse Guard has a modification for this: Realm Guard

Mouse Guard ($20 pdf purchase link, review) is a game about patrolling the borders between a safe haven for noncombatants and the dangers of the outside world. In the original game you're mice, but Realm Guard is a free Fourth Age LotR setting modification.

MG is moderately crunchy as RPGs go, so it has enough structure that new RPGers won't feel adrift but it lacks the infinite subsystems and extra material of a system like D&D. The system may not be as combat-oriented as you like (it can give near-equal emphasis to social and environmental challenges), but it does provide a rich conflict system that is entirely applicable to creative battle scenarios.

Mouse Guard doesn't require props beyond paper, pencils, and d6s (the cubical dice most commonly used by non-RPG games).

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Middle Earth Roleplaying by I.C.E. is what I would recommend.

The little brother of the more-complicated Rolemaster this is the RPG I started on when I was in my early teens, it's not that complicated to pick up and everything you need is in one book. However it is out of print but I've seen it on ebay for £10 in the UK. Let's see how it covers your points:

  • Cheap?
    Yep; only one book required and it's about £10/$15 or so. I've found multiple copies available on EBAY in the UK. The book you want is the one with this cover:

MERP Book cover

  • Simple to learn
    Skill + open ended roll, and that's it. No separate damage roll and a few table lookups, but they're all pretty easy to follow.
  • Combat-focused.
    While it doesn't have the tactical level of combat of (say) 4e AD&D it does have Criticals, flanking modifiers, penalties for wounds and criticals. Did I mention the criticals? Want to literally lop an orcs head off with your axe? That can happen.
  • LOTRisable
    Magic levels are entirely down to you; I.C.E. did tend to splatter the game with more magic items and magic than were usual however, but you can easily mitigate and manage this - MERP works well with quality bonus items instead of magical ones, magical classes can be limited out and magic at low level in MERP is very, very useless. There's also a wealth of modules and settings information for virtually anything you can think of available on EBAY, prices for these are pretty cheap except for the rarer ones.
  • Low-prop
    You don't need a battleboard or minis, indeed we just scribbled on a piece of graph paper as we needed to. If you're super-lucky you can track down the original box set that came with cardboard cut-out figures in it - but I suspect that's a collectors piece now.
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Want to risk your head lopped by a random orc? Go for criticals, but they don't make for a really LOTR experience. Boromir was killed by the biggest uruk-hai in the loot, it wouldn't have been so heroic otherwise. –  Zachiel May 7 '13 at 15:49
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The main drawback of MERP is that it may be simple to learn, but it is complex to play. All that tables made the game hard to run smoothly. And, yeah, as sated, you can easily be killed on a bad roll, which could make a manly man cry after writing 4 pages of story. –  Flamma Jun 6 '13 at 15:50
    
I wouldn't recommend MERP to play. It's a clunky mess of a game. But I would still buy a copy because the art by Angus McBride is possibly the best in any game book. –  voidstate Jul 18 '13 at 11:25

It really depends on what aspects of The Lord of the Rings you want to emulate or capture. The One Ring, for example, is very good at emulating travel, exploration, and the effects of evil influence -- key features of the original books -- but its abstract combat rules are perhaps not a good fit for the acrobatic fights of the films.

It would also be useful to know how familiar you are with the setting, or whether that's even a factor. The One Ring is focussed on the Mirkwood area and so if you're intending to adventure further afield, you'll need to come up with a lot of setting material yourself. Middle-Earth Role Playing has heaps of detailed setting material so you can let them do that work for you, but it's all out of print.

If you're very familiar with the setting -- I know people who have read and seen everything Tolkien related and are like encyclopaedias -- then I'd say find a game with a combat system you like and just adapt it to Tolkien's world. Anything could work; you could use D&D4 but limit players to the martial classes for example.

Otherwise, The One Ring is quite simple to learn and play and does a good job of emulating the feel of Tolkien's work, if you are happy with either focussing on Mirkwood or making up your own stuff, and you don't mind abstract combat.

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I can advice "Savage Worlds" as a truly universal system. I'm running 2 adventures now, using this system (my own fantasy world and Weird War II), and everyone likes the system as one easy to understand, to master, giving lots of opporunities to playes. Also, you dont need to get dozens of books with new feats and classes. When I'm running the game, the only table I need to consult is "Injury table", as we use reallistic damage. SW doesn't use classes. You have 5 attributes, about 15 skills and something like 50 "Edges" (aka Feats in D&D). When u generate characters, you can also take some Hindrances, which give more points for skills/Edges. They have to be roleplayed.

  • You just need to purchase one book (By the way, you can download a "Test Drive" version from the official site)

  • It is really simple, brutal and fast-paced

  • Most of the rules correspond to combat. It allowes different small modifications to basic rules, such as "Heroes never die", "Reallistic damage" and so on

  • This system doesn't concentarate on any given setting. In case of LOTR, you get: hard to master magic, strong heroes and not-very-strong minions (Characters, both party and NPC are divided into "Wild cards" aka "Characters" and "Statists" aka "Minions", "Cardboard figures")

  • You can play wothout figures at all. But if you want to concentrate on fighting, get a battlemat or something else to model battlefideld, figures for the party. You can use any, just dont go for "What you see is what you get". But personally I can advise to play wotihout miniatures, it gievs much more up to the GM's decisions and to the imagination of players.

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1  
Disagree with Savage Worlds; here are my opinions why I would disagree - the system is extremely lethally. While LOTR is not filled with flashbang magic, its heroes are definitely a cut above the notch, and when luck swings against the players, it gets ugly pretty bad. Lots of setting tweaks needed (for background edges and skills), when compared to The One Ring and MERP. Combat rules, when it concerns movement and multiple attacks, are confusing, and assume you're using grid and accurate measurements. –  Extrakun Jun 6 '13 at 14:40
    
Using Savage Worlds would require a bit of work in terms of setting but that's the same of any game that's not already a Tolkien licence. I have never found it to be a lethal system. If anything, SW characters are by default a "cut above the notch" so if that were a requisite for Lord of the Rings play, I'd say it fits the bill there. I don't think I'd use Savage Worlds myself but nor do I think that it should be discounted as an option as it's more than up to the task. –  kelvingreen Jul 28 '13 at 20:27
    
-1 I'm sorry, this answer does not meet our site requirements for system-rec questions, which require, basically, "having done that or seen it done," not just "I'm sure my favorite system would be good for that." –  mxyzplk Jul 29 '13 at 1:13

You can try the Middle Earth Adventure Game, a simple system that uses only 2d6 and is an offshoot from the system used in an old series of gamebooks called "Middle-Earth Quests" (formerly "Tolkien Quests"). Unfortunately, as it is a fan-production, it does not have high production quality but it's free.

Characters have a few stats (Strength, Agility etc.) and 6 general skills (Missile OB, Melee OB, Perception, Subterfuge etc.) The system is basically 2d6 + stat + skill vs a set difficulty rating.

It's simple but rather low-frill; there isn't much fluff from the settings, besides some potion names. Magic is rather low-key but doesn't feel "Middle-Earthish" enough. It definitely meets your criteria of cheap (it's free!), simple to learn (if you can get past the writing), combat-focused, LOTRisable and low on props (just 2d6). However, paid products like TOR is definitely superior.

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