This is not a review from the past, because I never reviewed it at the time of release, 2002. However a pal asked for my thoughts on this so here goes.
The Decipher LoTR Core book is glossy and looks good, but the layout is not that great and it takes a bit of to-ing and fro-ing just to get your character created. It has one of my bete-noirs, which is text printed on pictures, which makes it very hard to update if you have the flawed 1st edition and manage to get a copy of the errata.
Although is a brief gazeteer at the start of the book, it assumes you have a decent understanding of Middle-Earth, or maybe you don’t care about exact “feel”. This can cause problems, there are references to the Valar being invoked by Loremasters, but no real info on the Valar or what their powers might be.
You create characters by points selecting or rolling attributes, picking race, order (class), skills and edges. Attributes are not used directly, but provide modifiers (e.g. a 10 Strength will give you a +2 modifier) and you can gain both skills and “edges” which are special effects and can often be unbalanced, being worth much more than a skill in the same territory for not a high enough extra costHow you get skills and spells with nebulous “picks” is actually more clumsy that experience points would be
The orders have elite versions, but the elite versions are a bit costly for what they are and you can argue that Rangers and Wizards aren’t classes, but descriptions of origin with specific meanings. If you don’t want to suffer the horrendous character creation process, then there are some pre-gen characters you can use.
The system is a simple “Roll 2d6 add skills and bonuses and beat a Target Number”. The higher your roll over the Target number then the more dramatic your success. This is also used in combat, with a contested roll, and the higher wins and gets to damage the opponent. There are would levels so that after losing so many hit points you drop down a health level. However it is hard for player characters to inflict large enough damage quickly on opponents to down them quickly. Combat will drag on unless you make the opponents have a glass jaw. Blows that hardly scratch a troll will hardly do more to a Dunlending.
The bugbear in any LoTR RPG (and I mean the RPG art of it) is magic. Magic a tricky concept in Middle-Earth. Elves and Dwarves and the ancient Numenoreans make things that have what we might call magical properties, but they consider that craftmanship. Gandalf talks about spells, and occasionally performs magic, but those he performs reluctantly, and the downside is that use of power can attract unwelcome attention, and Gandalf is an angelic spirit anyway. The conceit in this RPG is that is that the Istari trained pupils, who trained pupils and so on and so forth to the character.
The spell mechanics are inconsistent and in parts don’t really reflect the nature of Tolkien’s world (If you can understand the language of animals, then you can understand them, you don’t need a spell of limited duration which you need to refresh every so often) but to their credit they include the craft/nature aspects of Dwarf and Elven “magic” and the items given at the end are divided between “magic” and crafted. There are things to like like that you can improve your the casting of spells so that at the start there is a lot of words and gestures but at the end you need almost just to exert your will. There is good and bad magic, and using bad (Sorcery) leads to corruption (also bad) but you need to know the bad to effectively counter it. The temptations of power.
The creatures and enemies descriptions are fairly basic, as a supplement came out for it
OK, so what do I make of it. I wouldn’t play it unless you and your players are willing to put a fair bit of work flipping back and forward and house-ruling the bits that don’t work. It is badly laid out and there are too many flaws. There is the feeling that this wasn’t play-tested enough by devious or attentive players to pick out the imbalances and the silly like the fact that you have a rich edge (Hoard) but wealth isn’t really a feature of the game and you have to have an exception rule for enemies you can “one-shot” making the heroic aspect hard to achieve without overriding the system.
What I did with it was mine it for ideas for my preferred system. While the system is nice and simple, there are balance problems, editing, not issues – major SNAFUs and there without the Silmarillion as part of the licence the history of the world is limited. The authors went for a book feel and their love of the books is evident, even when it doesn’t quite make it through the system. So ideas like magic attracting attention, corruption as a measure (you can reduce corruption by heroic and selfless acts), those I stole. If you can get it cheap or just like fondling glossy books or a nutty completist, get this, otherwise look at the new “The One Ring” or a different system and use your and your players’ knowledge of Middle-Earth to fill in the rest.