I recently purchased The One Ring, which I'd heard about several months ago (it was published just this past October) but forgot about until reading a reference to it in one of the myriad D&D 5E discussions. After reading a handful of reviews I ordered it (closest I get to an impulse buy). I'd given Middle Earth Roleplaying Game (MERP) a brief look in the past and was extremely disappointed (basically a D&D variant with semi-Tolkien flavor; there should not be spell lists in a Tolkien game!). Rest assured that TOR is nothing like MERP; the primary goal seems to have been evoking the "feel" of adventuring in Middle Earth, with mechanics that support Tolkien's style and themes very faithfully. For now I'll just provide a brief overview, but I'll undoubtedly be writing more about this game in the future, and hopefully I'll put together an actual campaign soon.
Format and Setting
This core set takes place 5 years after the events of The Hobbit by default; next year a second core set, Errantries of the King, will expand the game geographically and culturally, as well as assume a later "start date," with the final core set The War of the Ring supporting adventures taking place during the events of LotR. The assumed timeline is actually pretty perfect; 5 years after Smaug has been killed Dale, Erebor, and Esgaroth are (mostly) re-built, and Beorn has abandoned his solitary lifestyle to become a great Chief of Men, founding the Beornings who keep safe the lands between the old ford of the Anduin and the pass over the Misty Mountains. Wilderland (which is where this core set is restricted to) has thus had enough time to grow relatively prosperous, trade has started to become re-established between the free peoples of the region, and many evil creatures have been reduced or driven off after the Battle of Five Armies (making this a more forgiving place for beginning adventurers). Ten years after the Hobbit (and five years into the default campaign) is when 3 Nazgul reclaim Dol Guldur for Sauron, bringing the Shadow back to Mirkwood and ramping up the difficulty.
Players can start the game as a member of 1 of 6 different cultures, and choice of culture has the biggest mechanical impact of any other choice at character creation. The 3 human cultures are the Bardings of Dale (Bard the Bowmen has been crowned King), the aforementioned Beornings, and the Woodmen (of which only the briefest references are mentioned in Tolkien's work, but they live on the edge of Mirkwood and Radagast the Brown lives among them). Then there are the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, Wood Elves of Mirkwood, and Hobbits of the Shire. Obviously the Hobbits seem out of place since the Shire is nowhere near Wilderland, but it's a Middle Earth game so it makes sense that Hobbits would be available for play (perhaps some of the more Tookish young Hobbits, upon hearing Bilbo's tale, were eager to strike out on their own and retrace his steps). Culture determines your Cultural Virtue (a unique trait that all members of that culture possess), the majority of your starting ranks in the Common Skills (though you have some "free" points for further customization), and 2 sets of weapon skills, of which you can choose 1 (usually the choice for primary weapon is a cultural weapon group, so all types of axes for example, or a single favored weapon, such as a long-hafted axe).
Backgrounds and Callings
Backgrounds further flesh out your character and determine your starting attributes, and while these are organized by culture the rules explicitly encourage experienced gamers to invent their own. There are also 5 Callings, but unlike backgrounds these are universal. Their mechanical impact is relatively minor (you get 2 favored skills, and a new trait) and basically describes what your motivation for adventuring is. There are Scholar (learns things), Slayer (kills things), Warden (protects things), Treasure-Hunter (finds things), and Wanderer (goes places). More importantly, your calling determines your Shadow-weakness, which describes how you can be corrupted by the Shadow.
Each culture also gets their own special set of cultural virtues (for
raising your Wisdom) and rewards (for raising Valour). Virtues are neat
little abilities, combat or non-combat, whereas rewards are new items
(or item upgrades; the "fluff" is up to the player), which are only rarely non-combat. These provide a
good amount of customization, and will largely determine what makes one
Dwarf different from another, for example. When you create your character you decide whether to favor Valour or Wisdom (and thus whether you start the game with a Virtue or Reward), though you're free to improve them as you please when you gain XP.
You can accumulate shadow points throughout the game, and if your hope points (a valuable resource that can turn failure into success when called upon) ever drops below your shadow score you become miserable, which is bad because when you have crappy rolls you may suffer a bout of madness, which nets you a permanent shadow point and a flaw based on your shadow weakness. Succumbing to the shadow and progressing fully along this track is just as bad as dying, if not worse (your character essentially becomes an evil NPC). The Shadow mechanic portrays the psychological effects of adventuring in Middle Earth very well, and does a great job of emphasizing some of the more prominent themes in Tolkien's work (power of friendship, overcoming or succumbing to corruption, good vs evil, etc.).
The game comes with specialized dice, but normal dice can be used as long as a few rules are remembered. The D12 is your feat die, and is numbered 1-10 with an Eye of Sauron (11) and a Gandalf rune (12). Gandalf is an automatic success, and bad stuff happens when you roll the Eye (opposite for monsters). Every die roll uses the feat die. For every rank you have in a given skill (common skill, weapon skill, wisdom, valour, or protection test) you also get to roll a D6 (to a maximum of 6 ranks). 1-3 on the D6 are un-filled, because they count as 0 if you're weary. There's a tengwar symbol on the 6, and rolling 6s will determine your degrees of success. By spending a point of hope, you can add your relevant attribute to a die roll (after the result, so you'll know whether or not it will change the outcome). And that's the basics.
Note that weary occurs when your endurance (HP) drops below your fatigue score (determined by the encumbrance of your weapons/armor, and modified further by failing Fatigue tests during journeys). Traveling light is thus rewarded, which definitely fits the flavor of Tolkien's work (note that Dwarves can get away with carrying heavier stuff).
Adventure Structure and Social Encounters
The game is structured into 2 major phases, the Adventuring Phase (where most time is spent) and the Fellowship Phase (downtime with specific emphasis). You can spend XP and Advancement Points to upgrade your character during the Fellowship phase, and you can also attempt an Undertaking (cure shadow points through the Craft or Song skill, secure a new patron, open a new sanctuary, etc). The adventuring phase has 3 main mechanical areas - combat, journeys, and encounters (which are social). Social encounters are pretty typical, with PCs using a combination of narration and skills from the Personality and Custom skill groups. Encounters are set to a certain Tolerance (modified by the valour/wisdom of characters, their standing, and any prejudices the NPC might have), and that determines how many rolls you can fail. I've seen an intriguing house rule that uses a modified Tolerance mechanic to simulate mass-combat.
Combat is tactical, but abstract. No grid or minis are needed. Characters choose 1 of 4 stances, and that provides a base for their target number (TN). For example, Forward Stance is the most aggressive, with a base of 6. This means that you only need to hit a 6+enemy's parry rating when you attack, but enemies can hit you on a 6+your parry rating. In contrast, Defensive Stance has a base TN of 12 (tougher to hit things, but it's also tougher to be hit). Only PCs get to fiddle around with stances (monsters just react to whatever stance the heroes are in). Each stance also has its own special action that can be taken (intimidate, rally comrades, protect ally, and prepare shot for forward, open, defensive, and rearward stances, respectively). Hits reduce endurance (HP), but if you roll your weapon's edge value or higher on the feat die you get a piercing shot, which means that the enemy must make a protection roll or be wounded. Monsters are (usually) killed at 0 endurance or from 1 wound. PCs are knocked out at 0 endurance, or if they take 2 wounds (and killed if their second wound also reduces them to 0 endurance). Protection rolls are determined by the armor you wear. Edit: I forgot to mention that you can also make called shots, but you have to both hit with your attack and get a great or extraordinary success (great success is 1 6 on a D6, extraordinary is 2+ 6s). Without those 6s, even if you meet or exceed the TN you still miss, so it's risky. Success means that you get the normal benefits of a hit, but also do something special depending on your weapon group; axes and mattocks break shields, swords disarm, and bows/spears get automatic piercing blows regardless of the number on the feat die. Called Shots work a little differently for monsters; when a PC misses and rolls an Eye, the next monster attack against them is automatically a called shot.
Journeys are the most interesting part of TOR in my opinion, because I haven't seen such mechanics in other games and obviously journeys are important in Tolkien's work. PCs assume 4 different roles for journeys (Guide, Scout, Look-out, and Huntsman), each requiring different skills. A hex map with details on type of terrain allows the GM (called Loremaster, or LM) to easily calculate how long a proposed route will take. Season and journey length will determine how many fatigue rolls the party must make, and failed fatigue rolls adds to a characters fatigue score (albeit temporarily). A failed fatigue score that results in an Eye on the feat die triggers a hazard, which one of the roles will need to deal with (random encounter, getting lost, bad weather, etc). LM-planned events may also require rolls from the different roles (and usually does). For example, you can carry a week's worth of food usually, so on journeys longer than that you'll need a good huntsman.
Anyways, that's all for now. This is already longer than I meant it to be. Once I actually get to play the game I'll post more!