REVIEW: Ruins of the Lost Realm

The thick red leatherbound second edition of The One Ring (TOR) roleplaying game enchanted me the moment I opened the Kickstarter reward. Reminiscent of the “Red Book of Westmarch” described in Tolkien’s prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, that volume’s illustration, graphic design, and rules design together presented a game which said to me, “here’s how to play stories which feel like Tolkien’s stories, but need not be derivative.” I love it, and anticipated follow-up releases from TOR’s Swedish publisher, Free League.

We now have one. Free League’s Ruins of the Lost Realm is a “sandbox” description of Eriador. This land was once the kingdom of Arnor, west of the Misty Mountains. The Shire of the Hobbits lies at its heart, with the Grey Havens along the western shore, and Elrond’s hidden home, Rivendell, in the foothills of the eastern mountains. Ruins describes the people of Eriador, plots which threaten them, and a collection of twelve “landmarks” for exploration during the game’s Adventuring Phase. It’s intended to be used in combination with the “World” chapter of TOR, which also focuses upon history, characters, and conflicts within Eriador. Together, the core rules and Ruins provide a Loremaster—TOR’s term for a gamemaster—with a large LEGO set from which to build their own campaign.

I had very high hopes for Ruins, considering the core rules’ superlative quality. The release fell a bit short. The front half of the book—describing Eriador, and the antagonists which threaten it—is very good, but the second half’s landmarks felt a bit underwritten. This disappointed me because I feel this type of site-based adventure design is usually a strength for Free League. I quite like their Forbidden Lands, which emphasizes exploration in the same way.

The landmarks chapter has two basic weaknesses: too many similar themes, and lack of detail in the “Schemes and Trouble” section of most landmarks. Several landmarks feel set up to be a treasure hunt, but without establishing broader consequences as in The Hobbit. A rumor, a monster, and a treasure is a time-honored formula for adventure. In this collection that formula is somewhat overused. Supplementary information in “Schemes and Trouble” to help integrate a landmark’s problems and antagonists into the themes, characters, and the Tale of Years presented in the book’s first half would give Ruins more structure. Skimming back through Raven’s Purge, for Forbidden Lands, the “Events” section of each adventure site provided fuel to my imagination in the way “Schemes and Trouble” has not.

While discussing the landmarks chapter, it’s also noteworthy that I was a little disappointed that section’s illustrations were nearly all location maps. The cartography is beautiful, and mostly easy to understand. Considering the number of monsters featured in the book—such as the Beast of Angmar, and the Doom of Nenuiel—I wish there were a couple extra illustrations. As a gamemaster I enjoy being able to turn the book around, point, and say “That! You walk around the corner, and see that!”

That said, the artwork really is excellent in the first two chapters of the book. My favorite piece is a Player-hero bargaining with a talking otter using shiny baubles. The sort of line art or sketch style chosen for this game’s interior illustrations meshes well with the page’s “paper” texture. This adds to TOR’s sensation of being an in-world artifact, and definitely increases my pleasure reading through these books.

And overall, this is a good book. It didn’t live up to my expectations, but my expectations were also very high. Ruins of the Lost Realm straddles my line between “armchair book” and “table book” with excellence. I definitely feel I got my purchase price’s enjoyment reading through the supplement. It’s also easy for me to imagine how I might create my own campaign with the material here, and the tools in TOR’s core rules. The landmarks are clearly presented, and I have no doubts about my ability to play them right out of the book. The antagonists and plots in the first half feel well fleshed-out, interesting, and engaging. In particular, I like how Saruman and the Dunlendings are handled; potential antagonists, but not (yet) followers of Sauron. Despite Tolkien’s reputation for Black and White, there’s plenty of Grey in Middle-Earth. TOR has shown it can handle that full spectrum from “evils to resist,” to “antagonists to interact with.”

Ruins is a solid sandbox for creating games providing meaningful interaction with Middle-Earth, without diluting or disregarding Tolkien’s original stories. And I do love it for that.

Ruins of the Lost Realm is available from DriveThruRPG, or in hardcover over on Free League’s website.

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