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A Sneak Peek at The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game Core Book

Reviewed by Joe Mandala, copyright © 2002

Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion

The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game Core Book is produced by Decipher, Inc. It is the introductory volume in a series of books to be released over the coming years supporting role-playing in Tolkien's Middle-earth. This book is slated for a release at GenCon, and should be released in retail stores around that time (the second weekend of August, 2002). I did not have the production copy of the book for this review, and subsequently some sections must be read with caution - particularly Graphic Design and Material Construction. What I do have is the spread copy - the copy that is used for final proofing and is created prior to final printing.

CONTENTS

  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: There and Back Again: The Realms of Middle-earth
    • Creating a Hero
    • Archetypes
  • Chapter Two: Might and Majesty: Attributes
  • Chapter Three: The Free Peoples: Races of Middle-earth
  • Chapter Four: Warriors, Wizards and Kings: Orders
  • Chapter Five: Ringing Anvils and Rhymes of Lore: Skills
  • Chapter Six: Stern Men and Resolute: Traits
  • Chapter Seven: Words of Power and Runes of Might: Magic
  • Chapter Eight: Axe and Sword: Weapons and Gear
  • Chapter Nine: Good Words and True: The Coda System Rules
  • Chapter Ten: Saga and Grandeur: Elements of Epic Fantasy
  • Chapter Eleven: Storied Heights and Firelit Halls: Creating and Running the Chronicle
  • Chapter Twelve: The Fear and the Shadow: The Enemy and His Servants
  • Index

GRAPHIC DESIGN

The book is pretty. Granted - I have not seen the finished product, but at the Origins Game Fair I saw a full-color mockup, and it was very pretty, even on paper sheets in a three-ring binder. I was initially disappointed that the book uses (almost exclusively) pictures from the movie as art. There is some original art, but it seemed a bit sparse to me (a great fan of the sketches that so many RPG books use). The original art that is used is pretty good stuff. It seems a bit MacFarlandish, but not quite as exaggerated. There are also icons strewn throughout the book as section breaks, etc. That all said - I think the end result is actually very good. The movie art is used well - sometimes inserted between text blocks, and sometimes as a background. It almost always is contextual, as well - something many graphic designers tend to forget in the excitement of using great pictures. The one great disappointment, graphically, is that there is only one map in the book. The map is one of Northwestern Middle-earth, and follows the standard design template of a Tolkien map. It is fairly basic, with very pretty lettering. I only wish that there had been perhaps some small thumbnail maps of the corresponding regions in the gazetteer at the beginning of the book (Chapter One: There and Back Again).

MATERIAL CONSTRUCTION

Unfortunately, since I don't have an actual press copy of the book yet, I am unable to really rate the material construction of the book. It will most likely, however, be of the same construction as the Star Trek books recently released by Decipher. These books look fairly sturdy, but their potential shelf-life in a well-used scenario will probably be shorter than I'd like. I have a feeling that the separate sections will separate from the binding, as they only seem to be glued to the cover and not strongly bound to each other.

NARRATIVE CONTENT AND MECHANICS

The narrative content of the book is generally very good, though in spots it seems a little transparent where editorial changes were made (not many, though). In many places, standard sentence structure is abandoned for effect. This may bother some readers, as it makes it a bit more difficult to simply read through as a volume. Taken by section, however, it becomes much easier to follow and adds some welcome color to the text. The language is more complex and less colloquial than most of these types of books, but is not quite "archaic." That is to say that in spots it reads like a version of the highly stylistic language of Tolkien or De Troyes, but passed through the filter of modern readability. There is a clearly distinct difference between the descriptive prose bits and the technical mechanics bits of the book, as well. It is a bit choppy in this respect, but I think this serves the volume well - it makes it clear when the reader should "step out" of the story elements of the book, and examine the mechanics with a more analytical and less imaginative point of view. Overall, the book is written well, without being the Holy Grail of RPG writing style.

Introduction

The introduction contains the ubiquitous "what is roleplaying?" question. There is nothing earth-shattering or new about the answer. There is also, appropriately, a section introducing those who have played Decipher's Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Adventure Game (see our review in the April 2002 issue). There is also a short and concise glossary, and a reference to seek out more knowledge at Decipher's web site (which promisingly points to online support for the game in the form of downloads - but the reference blatantly markets the card game as well, which may turn off some "core" role-players).

Chapter One: There and Back Again: The Realms of Middle-earth, Creating a Hero and Archetypes

This chapter begins with a very excellent (in spite of its brevity) gazetteer. The entries are to the point, but still give some idea of the scope of what this genre offers. Nearly every region in northwestern Middle-earth is covered, as well as all the major bordering regions. It would be very nice if this gazetteer were to serve as the starting point for a future list of source books for the game. There is a short bit (a few paragraphs) introducing you to the idea of creating an alternate persona (character), and a short list (6) of "Archetypes" (pre-made characters) to use as examples. The characters are fairly well-balanced, and are good representations of the "typical" character of that particular Race and Order (profession).

Chapter Two: Might and Majesty: Attributes

This game uses a 2d6 base system, so nearly everything has a range of 2-12. There are six primary Attributes - Bearing, Nimbleness, Perception, Strength, Vitality, and Wits. Each attribute has a maximum starting value of 12, which can then be adjusted higher than that depending on the character's Race. The Attributes can be generated randomly, and the method given is to roll 2d6 nine times, drop the lowest three resulting scores, and assign the remaining six values. There is also the "pick method," which involves assigning the values 10, 9, 7, 7, 5, and 4 - then distributing an additional 8 points to these values. Each Attribute value generates an Attribute modifier ranging from -3 to +3 - this modifier is then added to skill, reaction, and attribute tests during game play.

There are also secondary Attributes, including Reactions, which are generated from primary Attributes. These include Stamina, Swiftness, Willpower, Wisdom, Defence, Health (Wound Levels), and Weariness Levels. There is also Courage, which is basically this game's version of Fate/Luck points (spend a Courage Point, get +3 retroactively), and Renown, which is how well your character is known throughout Middle-earth. Size is the last attribute, and is dependent on your Race. There is also a section describing how attributes can change during the course of play.

Right in the middle of this chapter is an excellent section called The Qualities of Heroes. It describes some of the personality traits that a hero should have, and cautions that much of what is entertaining about roleplaying games lies not in the quantifiable, but in how a character is played - the unquantifiable personality of your character. This is a welcome reminder that the point is to create a full character, not just a dossier on a VIP. While the attribute system is, on a whole, unremarkable (as most RPGs are in this regard), it does not fall into the trap of attempting to provide an overabundance of physical statistics.

I heartily applaud the inclusion of Bearing (presence/charisma) as a primary attribute. Its application in the game is very important, and is not limited to the standard bullying influence checks or haggling techniques which most games limit it to. This is very appropriate for a game set in Middle-earth, as the Bearing of a hero often has bearing (pun intended) on his actions in the Lord of the Rings (examples are too numerous to list).

Chapter Three: The Free Peoples: The Races of Middle-earth

There is not a lot of leeway in describing the races of Middle-earth - they are fully set out in The Lord of the Rings, and additions usually seem contrived and out of place. Decipher stays true to the story, providing only those Races which appear as the Free Peoples in The Lord of the Rings. You have a choice from the following Races: Dwarves, Elves (Noldor, Sindar, and Silvan), Hobbits (Fallohides, Harfoots, and Stoors), or Men (Dunedain, Middle Peoples, Men of Darkness, and The Wild Men). Each Race entry gives a list of pertinent statistics - physical description, common personality traits, lands of origin, speech, examples of names, some renowned member of the race, favored Orders, Adjustments for attributes, skills and traits, and racial abilities.

The mechanical aspects of the races are not artificially balanced, which is a welcome relief from the all too common idea that game balance is all about shifting a preset total of points around to different stats and attributes. Elves are clearly more powerful than the other races in The Lord of the Rings, and it shows here. While they are not Supermen to everyone else's Clark Kent, they are obviously superior. Munchkins will have a heyday with this game without the wise (and probably overt) guidance of a strong Narrator. Elves should be rare as Player Characters, but Decipher has left this decision up to the people playing the game rather than attempting to dilute the racial characteristics in an effort to make Elves less attractive to power gamers. I cannot express how impressed I am with the fact that Dwarves are physical powerhouses, but aren't stupid because of it - with the fact that Hobbits are not natural thieves and are not freakishly nimble - with the fact that Elves are simply more powerful and better than the other races - and with the fact that Men are simply a bit more versatile, but otherwise fairly unremarkable (except perhaps for the Dunedain, and rightly so).

Chapter Four: Warriors, Wizards and Kings: The Orders

In the Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game, what are commonly called professions are instead labeled Orders. There are nine basic Orders, and six elite Orders. The basic orders are: Barbarian, Craftsman, Loremaster, Magician, Mariner, Minstrel, Noble, Rogue, and Warrior. The elite orders are: Archer, Captain, Knight, Ranger, Spy, and Wizard (more on elite orders later). Each order provides your character with a list of favored attributes (more on "favored" later), a list of Skills and Traits, and a list of Abilities. These lists provide your character with a general description of what a character of that Order should be good at, and also provide some mechanical purpose to differentiating them.

Each has packages which you can pick from which give a character a preset number of ranks in certain skills. There are also abilities which you can choose from when you create a character.

Now for a description of "favored." When a character gains 1,000 experience (allocated by the Narrator), he gets 5 "picks." These picks can be used to increase any of your character's statistics, but at differing prices. "Favored" items (like favored attributes) are cheaper to develop than otherwise. Likewise Order skills, traits and abilities are cheaper to develop than non-order items.

The whole idea behind this system is basically to provide a character with a "path of least resistance." If a player decides to spend his picks to their fullest effectiveness in game terms, he will likely end up being a prototypical example of his order. There is, however, nothing keeping him from developing non-Order (or non-Race) Skills, Traits, etc - they are just more expensive to "pick." For instance, there is no reason a Minstrel could not develop combat skills, but this comes at a higher price. Likewise a Warrior can (contrary to popular representation) learn to sing well over time.

Elite orders remind me somewhat of an old, old video game - the first Wizardry (Proving Ground of the Mad Overlord). What they consist of is mainly a specialization in a smaller skill set than a basic Order. There are prerequisites to gaining Elite Orders, and it is not particularly easy. The elite orders give you an additional set of skills from which to pick as the less expensive cost, and access to additional abilities. They represent a specialization in a particular area, though you do not have to be a Warrior to become a Knight - you must simply fit the prerequisites of the Elite Order.

I think that all of the orders listed, especially following the suggestions in the book, are appropriate for Middle-earth. It is probably not a completely inclusive list - there are probably ways to tease more Orders and certainly more Packages out of the information we have on Middle-earth. Overall, it is a good collection of Orders, and I think that the Elite Order concept is a good one. The fact that the Order descriptions are couched in terms native to Middle-earth makes it very easy to see how they fit.

Chapter Five: Ringing Anvils and Rhymes of Lore: Skills

Skills are fairly basic in The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game. There are three Test Categories - Academic, Physical, and Social. Within these categories are a number of skills. The Category helps to determine what sort of environmental modifiers can affect your ability to use the skill. Most skills also have a specialization (such as Riding: Horses or Language: Westron). The skill list is fairly limited, but with specialization you can cover most situations that your character might find himself in.

In addition to specialization, there is something called Skill Affinity. If you are performing a skill test, and have a skill very similar to the one you are using for the test (and it is applicable to the situation), you gain a +1 bonus to your roll. Other bonuses to your skill total include an Attribute bonus and miscellaneous modifiers (mainly from Edges and Abilities). Situational modifiers can also apply, depending on the circumstances under which you are attempting to use the skill. There are rules for using degrees of success - this is not generally a succeed/fail system, unless it is appropriate.

In essence, you are given a target number by the Narrator, and then you roll 2d6 and add all appropriate modifiers. If you reach the target number (TN), then you succeed (sometimes how MUCH you succeed or fail by determines the actual outcome). Some would call this system simplistic (some would call it complicated). I think it is neither. It presents you with what is, on the face, a very simple way to resolve skills. When you consider, however, all the different aspects of your character and the environment that can affect what you are doing, things get a bit more complex. Overall, I think I would describe the skill system as elegant - but perhaps a bit incomplete (I've always been a lover of lists and lists of skills).

Chapter Six: Stern Men and Resolute: Traits

This is the CODA system's Edges and Flaws system. When you create a character, you may choose edges (or flaws) with your beginning picks. Some of these are very entertaining, but most of them just plain fit Middle-earth. It is fascinating to read the descriptions of the edges and flaws, and very clearly see its origins in some character (minor or major) in Tolkien's work. Again - we have here an unwillingness to completely give in to the momentum of "RPG Generica," and Decipher has created a list of edges and flaws which, for the most part, feel right for gaming in Middle-earth.

Chapter Seven: Words of Power and Runes of Might: Magic

Well, here it is - probably the most difficult thing to design in a game based in Middle-earth. Magic in Middle-earth has always been so difficult to quantify. I've never been entirely happy with my attempts, but I think Decipher has done a pretty good job here. First of all, the game does well to split magic into Wizardry (good) and Sorcery (bad). Magic is further divided into Spell Specialties - Air and Storm; Beasts and Birds; Fire, Smoke, and Light - and so on. This is pertinent to specializations you can choose as Order Abilities as a Magician. More interestingly, the modes of casting include Songs of Power! They also include Runes and the ever-popular "normal." I couldn't think of a better name for it, either. There is an excellent essay on how magic should be used in Middle-earth, and how exactly it manifests itself. This is VERY well written, and should be read carefully by prospective Narrators and Players alike. It will give you an excellent feel for how to keep magic "Middle-earthy" in your game. I am not going to go into a lot of detail here, because much of this chapter deals with conceptualization of magic, which is difficult to describe in less than a few pages. This may leave some of you disappointed, but many of you know what my ties to this genre are, so please place just an ounce of trust in me here.

I think that the mechanics are not as good as they could be. You basically cast any spell you know without the fear of failing, but you must make a Weariness roll every time you cast a spell (each spell has a different TN). Each time you fail this roll, you become more exhausted, making more difficult to do ANYthing. While this is a decent system for Middle-earth, I miss the chance to fail outright. This system makes it easy for the advanced Magician to cast "easy" spells all day long without penalty. Something is missing here, but I'm not sure what.

The spell list, though - this is a gem. Every single spell on this list has its origin in the literature. EVERY spell, without exception. This makes me happy, because I know I won't have to chop the system to pieces just to be able to use it. And, as it is in The Lord of the Rings, the vast majority of the magic is very subtle stuff. That is not to say it is not powerful - not at all. But this list of spells will only really be useful to a character who is thoughtful about how and what they cast. The Munchkin who (if he ever deigned to play a weakling magic user) would go back to the spell that "gives the most plusses" every time would be very frustrated by this list - the applications of these spells will differ from situation to situation. There is no fireball. There is no teleport. There is Create Light. There is Evoke Awe. I will say again how happy I am with this list.

There are rules for creating enchanted items, and again we are talking about fairly subtle stuff, because it basically involves imbedding spells into items (apart from some special cases like Dwarf Doors, Elven Food, etc). Items can also be enchanted by Elves using one of their Abilities (called Art), and craftsmen have an Ability called Enchantment that can be used. These all result in fairly minor enchantments that can nevertheless have a large impact on the game, if played appropriately. Stats for some famous items are also given (including the One Ring, Sting, the Palantiri, etc). These seem to be in line with Tolkien as well, though there may be some room for squabbling over specific game mechanics.

Chapter Eight: Axe and Sword: Weapons and Gear

There are only a couple of points to make on this fairly short and simple section. First of all, there are no crossbows and there is no full plate armor. This is representative of the fact that the weapons and equipment on these lists are NOT generic Middle-Age items, but are drawn from examples (again) in the books. The second point to make is that the money system is basically the same as the Middle English system (with some different terminology). There are pieces and pennies of copper, silver, and gold. A piece is equal to four pennies in all denominations. It's also done by the correct (non-metric) method of dividing coinage, so that 1gold penny = 4 silver pieces = 16 silver pennies = 1600 copper pennies. Remember that a piece = four pennies, and don't strain your brain trying to convert a gold piece to copper pennies. And a pony in Bree does indeed cost 4 silver pennies.

Chapter Nine: Good Words and True: The Coda System Rules

Here is the quick and the dirty: a round in this system is six seconds. You get two actions points per round. Some actions take more than one point, some are free (there are charts for all of this, but they are fairly short and easily memorized). There are rules here for all manner of tests in all manner of conditions. Opposed tests are described in some detail, and it is a simple yet effective system. The more "passive" action is rolled first, then the more "active" skill test is made against a TN that equals the skill roll of the first, more passive, action.

And we very quickly reach combat. Initiative is determined every round, which basically means that you roll 2d6 and add your nimbleness modifier. Tied initiatives act simultaneously. After initiative is determined, the attacking character makes a combat roll (armed, unarmed, or ranged), which is then applied against a TN equal to the defender's Defence rating. Defence is a fairly static secondary Attribute, which will not change much of the course of a character's life (it is expensive to do so, but can be done slowly). You can parry (adding 2 to your defense, but subtracting 2 from your attack), dodge (your TN for a successful dodge is your opponent's total attack roll), and perform many other combat actions that can modify the final results of your roll(s). There are also many modifiers for combat, including stance (prone foe, etc), cover, range, and motion. If an attack is successful, the damage dealt is an amount determined by your weapon. There are no "instant kills" such as there are in a system like Rolemaster, for instance - you must wear your opponent down strike by strike. You can critical (on any roll) - if you roll double sixes, you may roll another die (if you get a six you roll yet again), etc. If you critical in combat and are successful, you automatically deal maximum damage from your weapon. Stunning is an active attack - you must be attacking to stun (blunt attack), and deal no normal damage (instead your opponent must make a Stamina roll).

There are extensive rules also for "unseen attacks" such as fear and corruption. Fear is basically a willpower check instead of Defence, as is Corruption. The end results of failure are very different, however. Fail a fear check and freeze in place or run away. Fail corruption too often, and the Narrator is instructed to take control of your character. If he becomes evil, then you lose him (the game is based on the premise that you want to play a good guy).

A section on Horses is next, including rules for using them in combat and in travel. Extensive statistics are given for four kinds of horses (including Mearas). This is followed by a section on mass combat and battles. First is the basic rule set - this is an extremely simplistic system which relies on chance and the tide of battle to determine a victor. There are no rules here for actually enacting a battle - this is basically just a method of determining a winner. You can roll to see what happens to your characters if you wish - anything from "nothing" to "valorous deed" can happen. You may even meet a great captain of the enemy and enact single combat in the middle of a raging battle. Very heroic. This is followed by the more complicated rules for unit-based battle which is still fairly simple, but much more interesting. There are statistics given for some basic unit types. Sieges are also detailed.

The next section deals with weariness and injury, which are dealt with in nearly the same way. You have a number of wound levels depending on your size. Each level is equivalent to your character's Health. Each time your character loses his health worth of hit points, he goes down one wound level. Each wound level confers greater and greater penalties on your character. It is essentially the same with Weariness, except that there is no point total - you simply make weariness checks to see if you lose a weariness level. With wounds, however, if you reach the final level, you are dead. With weariness you collapse. It is a simple, yet effective system. There are also rules for recovery.

The last section in the Rules chapter involves traveling. There is an excellent chart showing general travel speeds, and a chart showing distances between main areas in NW Middle-earth. There is one typo on the distance chart, but hopefully the error won't make it to the printers.

Chapter Ten: Saga and Grandeur: Elements of Epic Fantasy

This is actually one of the better essays I have read on the subject - which is how to maintain the feel of the literature when playing in an adapted game (like this one). There are a lot of great ideas here on how to deal with specific situations, and plenty of general philosophy to feed your own idea machine. I highly recommend reading this part of the book, even if you don't want to run games in Middle-earth. The precepts put forth here would work as well in a Wheel of Time setting, for instance. High marks for this chapter - it left me feeling like I had actually learned something, and I am not that easy to teach.

Chapter Eleven: Storied Heights and Firelit Halls: Creating and Running the Chronicle

This chapter deals mainly with the role of the Narrator in a roleplaying game. There is a suggested system for delineating a campaign (here called a chronicle), and how to divide it into manageable parts. How to choose a setting and how to bring that setting to life with detail is described. The three-act model is recommended as a basis for creating "chapters" of which you construct your chronicle. Some tips on how to run actual sessions are also given. Story elements (like NPCs, pacing, etc) are discussed, and the "keep things feeling Tolkien" mantra is repeated again (to my enduring delight). Time settings are discussed, and it is made clear that the main setting for the forthcoming source books will most likely be the time period between the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (though adventuring during the War and in the Fourth Age are mentioned as possibilities). Some general adventure ideas are given (these are very general ideas), as are some ideas on playing the Fellowship themselves.

Experience is the next section. This is a basic and levelless system that I am growing to like more and more. You gain experience as the Narrator sees fit (as in any RPG). Instead of levels, you are instructed to do the following: for each 1000 experience you are awarded, you get five "picks" with which you can increase Attributes, Skills, etc. There are some suggestions on how to award experience for the new Narrator, and there is a chart detailing awards for your Renown Attribute. That's it. My initial reaction was, "um....," but I've come to realize that this is basically what I've done to every game I've played, except that I called it levels for no good reason, and kept that arbitrary delineation of experience. It is yet another aspect of this game that helps take the focus away from "Monty Haul" and back to the story, where it belongs.

Chapter Twelve: The Fear and the Shadow: The Enemy and His Servants

I have a feeling that this section was nearly an afterthought, but it isn't a bad one. This section details some of the more famous baddies of Middle-earth, from Sauron himself (no stats for this one, though) down to Grima Wormtongue and the Orcs. In the Fell Beasts and Monsters section we are given descriptions of such wonderful creations as the Mumakil (Oliphaunts), Wolves, and Wargs. The statistics are as comprehensive as those of the sample characters, and there are some short and sweet rules for increasing your generic critters' overall power level if it is called for. The reason I say that this section is more of an afterthought is that is seems woefully incomplete. There are some monsters, some big NPCs, and a few animals which seem more attuned to the Shadow than others, but there is no list of "good" animals, and not really many "bad" ones, either. We are, however, promised a source book soon explicitly detailing just this - creatures and monsters.

The final bit in this section (though not really in this section, but appended to it) is the character sheet. I have the suspicion that most RPG companies have resigned themselves to the fact that almost nobody uses their character sheets any more (MS Excel being as ubiquitous as it is), and so they cobble a quick one together for the sake of completeness. Not that this character sheet is a bad one, per-se - it looks good. There is not near enough room for skills, though, and no extra lines for specializations in skills (which is an integral part of the skill system!). There simply doesn't seem to be enough ROOM on the thing, which is a complaint which you will often hear from me about nearly any character sheet (in the interest of fairness).

CONCLUSION

This is a good game. It is not the best game out there, but it may possibly be the best game out there for roleplaying in Middle-earth. It is not a terribly realistic game, but a "heroic" style game, which is really what you need to play a game with a Middle-earth feel. Fans of simulation-style systems like Rolemaster or Harnmaster will not find this system to be portable, with the possible exception of the rules on Magic. I can easily imagine playing a Middle-earth campaign using a simulation-style system for skill resolution and combat, and importing the Magic system from this game. There is one thing missing from this book though - a discussion of herbs. While there is a short section on Leechcraft, there is no extended discussion of herbs and their uses, which in my opinion is an important part of the feel of Middle-earth.  This is a fairly small quibble, however, as I am sure there will be a source book detailing herbs, poisons, and their uses at some point. If not, it is a fairly simple matter to incorporate other source material already written on the subject (many essays have been written on herbs in Middle-earth) using the basic rules as they are. I am very impressed with the respect for the feel of Middle-earth that this game expresses - sometimes very strongly. I am also reasonably impressed with the system, which is not so much simple as it is elegant. A note which will be interesting to mostly those who are involved in Middle-earth gaming in a scholarly vein - the book seems to be very well researched and edited for consistency with the corpus of Tolkien's work. This is no mean feat, and makes me feel very good about the source material to come. I think the book is well worth its rumored $40 price tag, and I encourage anyone even remotely interested in gaming in Middle-earth to at least give it a look for the Magic system alone.

  • Graphic Design 8/10 (caution: have not seen final copy)
  • Material Construction 6/10 (caution: have not seen final copy)
  • Narrative Content 9/10
  • Mechanics 8/10
  • OVERALL RATING 8/10

Editor's Note:  The Lord of the Rings  Roleplaying Game Core Book is produced by Decipher, Inc., which can be found at http://www.decipher.com.

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