I've gotten hold of the .pdf myself (and will, yeah, most likely buy the boxed set), and I have to say, I'm really excited about this game!
A few comments and quibbles:
- yes, there is a passing similarity to Mouse Guard, but not a strong one.
- yes, the formatting is such that particular rules can be a little tricky to find at times, but if you read it from beginning to end you'll find everything; some things just aren't repeated like they should be, or are first mentioned in odd places and then never mentioned again (like what the Feat die and Success dice look like..)
- I have been underlining all kinds of things, just to overcome the semi-weird formatting; things that look important but aren't flagged and bolded have been underlined or circled in black pen (thanks, b/w printout!)
- you roll a d12, the Feat die, every time you roll the dice. If it comes up an 11, it's the Eye of Sauron, which negatively affects the result. If it comes up 12, it's the Rune of Gandalf, which has a positive effect. Kind of wonky that they went with 11 instead of, you know, 1, but whatever. Strictly speaking (I need to investigate this), it could be that the Eye still counts as an 11 but also creates bad or weird side effects. Still, kind of odd.
Straight-up cool stuff:
- adventures occur at the rate of one per year, followed by a recovery period called the Fellowship Phase in which you manage your reputation, your wealth, and your spiritual health (by shedding Shadow points); this phase lasts between a week and a season, and "caps" the adventure.
For context, the journey from the Shire to Rivendell could be considered one adventure, since they take their sweet time healing Frodo, something on the order of weeks!
The journey to Mount Doom, come to think of it, would be one enormous adventure from there on out, since the poor hobbitses never really get a break after that. Maybe I'm just recalling the movie version of events, though. Merry and Pippin catch a bit of a break when they encounter the Ents and get a chance to rest up at the Enthall, though.
- corruption! Okay, so I'm not quite sold yet on the cool-factor of gaining Shadow points from traveling through tainted lands, but experiencing anguish and doing horrid things to others both seem like legit sources of Shadow points. The latter, especially, is reminiscent of Polaris and its Experience Tests.
- to remove Shadow taint from yourself, you must make a Craft test or a Song test. Yep, just like in Earthdawn, making beautiful things is how you free yourself from the taint of evil. Cool! (okay, okay, in Earthdawn, strictly speaking, making beautiful things is how you prove that you are free of evil's icy grip, rather than how you remove yourself from it. Close enough ^__^)
- the game is set about five years before "the shadow returns to Mirkwood". Given the time-frame mentioned above, that means you've got about five adventures ahead of you before the War of the Ring's first blow will be struck (that is, the ringwraiths capturing and torturing Gollum, and finding out where the One Ring is). Naturally, that means the players have five game-years to walk into the Shire and encounter Bilbo Baggins and, who knows, maybe hear a little tale about his magic ring...
- the text is chock full of little story-gamey gems that demand a close-read. Yes, this game is in the Trad Games tradition (in that Trad rather than Indie is where the creators have been hanging out, where they got their experience and inspiration, etc.), but it's got neat little things in it like:
"the player shall declare the intended result of his action. On a success, he narrates what occurs," [paraphrased from the text]
"When a player selects the skill he will roll to complete an action, and when he describes the action itself, the other players shall have veto power over these decisions for the sake of logic and theme. If the players cannot resolve the issue, the Loremaster [GM] shall make a ruling." [paraphrased from the text]
To be fair, there are also depressing little tidbits like,
"...nothing ruins a good session of play as [much as] a player questioning the Loremaster's knowledge of the source material" p. 7, Loremaster's Book
"Before the game begins, the Loremaster should have at least a generic idea of how the plot of the adventure should unfold.... The Loremaster needs to have an idea of when [the events of the plot] will happen." p. 13, Loremaster's Book
So, yeah, you get some of the standard stuff about "The GM makes the plot, and the players are its main characters", (Google the "Provisional Glossary" and search for the phrase "Impossible Thing Before Breakfast" for more context).
To be fair, if the LM cannot "barf forth Tolkien-style apocalyptica" to the players' satisfaction (lil Apocalypse World reference, there), then the LM probably shouldn't be LMing. It's kind of neat that the rules explicitly state that the person best qualified to LM is whoever knows the most about Tolkien in the group, so at least they offer a method of handling this head-on. ^__^
Secondly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with pre-game prep. What I find objectionable is outcome prep, rather than simply content prep. Any veteran GM will tell you they've written up all sorts of amazing things on their lonesome before a session, only to never quite get a chance to use them in play. Understandably, the outcome/content distinction is not made explicit here.
Additionally, there are really neat little rays of light poking out, indicating that the designers were of two minds about player autonomy, which is cool:
"The last thing a Loremaster should do is to restrict his players ... in order to make them conform to his idea of how the game should progress. Players must feel that their characters can attempt any action, no matter how limited the chances of a successful outcome." p. 7, Loremaster's Book
Additionally, along the same lines:
"Managing the game system properly is absolutely vital for the creation of a truly cooperative role-playing experience....nothing is more destructive to a player's suspension of disbelief and immersion in the game than the feeling that his [hero's] fate is being dictated by the Loremaster's choices and not his own." p. 17, Loremaster's Book
Really! How cool is this?
Following up is this:
"... the rules are not the province of the Loremaster alone, but are an invaluable resource to be shared with all participants." p. 18, Loremaster's Book [emphasis mine]
Basically, you have what appears to be, and seems to be largely received by players as, an ordinary adventure-journey game that, thematically, takes D&D full circle into explicitly Tolkien-themed waters. But, clearly, there are elements of player empowerment, and a few gems here and there in the Corruption rules, that demonstrate it can be something more or different or stranger than that.
I didn't even mention character creation stuff, or Encounters!
To sum up the cool bits super-quick-like, there are several opportunities to plug your character concept into a larger context: many of the Backgrounds you can choose from (which actually determine more about your character than the character-class-equivalent, "callings") explicitly mention family members, social status, and community ties, right there in black and white. Lovely!
Now, of course, connecting your character's odd, unpleasant, or strange Background to, well, the rest of the game... the trick is to take it with you! That's going to take the GM's assistance. For example - Tookish hobbits are not trusted, considered wild, unpredictable, and adventurous. So - should the GM simply have a few NPCs mutter about your Tookish features, clucking their tongues?
No way! See, the biggest mood-killer for building Theme and whatnot, I think, is obsessively making the game about the traveling. The Journey mechanics really don't need to be front-and-center; they aren't even that complicated, so you could use kind of like a complicated AW custom move to further stress the scarcity and danger of Middle-Earth.
Additionally, Encounters are reserved for dealing with single or grouped (friendly or neutral) NPCs that you meet on your travels; the GM reserves judgment for deciding what constitutes an Encounter, but it puts a bit of emphasis on making such things significant in some way. The part I find the most compelling is this: all PCs have virtues (valour and wisdom), and NPCs look at one or the other virtue to decide how well they regard you.
The value of the chosen virtue dictates how many failed dice rolls the party can make during the Encounter before the NPCs decide they've had enough of your bungling. Things like racial prejudice (yep! In the rules!) and your characters' social standing (especially with the culture the NPC(s) belong(s) to) all affect how many of your failures they will endure. If you reach their Tolerance (that's the game term, yes), they will basically decide they aren't interested in listening to or dealing with you further - - what that means in detail is rooted in the direction the fiction is taking.
It's like taking the old-timey D&D reaction roll and expanding its scope to include a whole scene, rather than just a random little die roll at the moment of encounter.
Lots of cool stuff. I'm working on getting a campaign going. We'll see what comes of it!