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Exclusive Interview with TOR RPG Developer Francesco Nepitello

Francesco Nepitello is a name long-known to fans of Middle-earth gaming. He was one of the three developers who helped to create the War of the Ring board game back in 2004 and has been an active force in the board gaming community for many years. He is known for his innovation and dedication to the source material of the products he helps bring to life. His most recent accomplishment is as the Lead Developer for The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild, the latest incarnation of Middle-earth in table-top role-playing.  He was kind enough to grant me the opportunity to speak to him about the creative process his team went through in order to bring this game to life.

James: Mr. Nepitello, let me begin by saying what a huge honor it is to have this opportunity to speak with you.

Francesco: Hello James, thank you very much for your interest! It is a pleasure to converse with a fellow Tolkien enthusiast.

J: According to your interviews on the Cubicle 7 Youtube page, you state that you were initially relutant to accept the job as lead designer on The One Ring role-playing game. What were your initial doubts and concerns about this endeavor, and what was it that changed your mind? Was it a “eureka” moment, or was there simply a slow, long period of thought before you accepted this monumental task?

F: My reluctance had a lot to do with knowing how difficult and taxing it is to write a role-playing game. I was part of the team that designed another rpg (Lex Arcana) several years before (Marco Maggi, my codesigner for TOR was part of the team too, as Leo Colovini, a well-known board game designer hailing from Venice too) and we were four people at that time. Only thinking about writing the game by myself – and to do that in English! was enough to make me doubt I could pull it off.
But it was my love for everything Tolkien that made the difference – his works are one of the biggest reasons I am working in this industry, after all. That, and a lot of determination from Robert Hyde from Sophisticated Games! But then again, seriously, how can anyone turn down an offer to design a Middle-earth role-playing game?

J: The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild clearly evokes certain imagery from history – particularly from culture of the anglo-saxons and the Dark Age period. This has given your incarnation of Middle-earth a different feel from the previous incarnations published by ICE and Decipher. What made you decide to go down this particular path of imagery and feeling instead of the more fantastic incarnations of Middle-earth that were presented in the past?

F: The visual aspect of TOR has been carefully crafted to be its own thing, and to show what I thought better reflected what is described in the books. So I think that if you recognise Anglo-saxon and dark-ages elements in the game is because we thought Tolkien himself often reached to those same sources for his own inspiration. To support this view I have found an invaluable ally in Jon Hodgson – his talent and knowledge of dark age weapons, armour, architecture and general ‘mood’ have been invaluable in creating a new visual ‘canon’ for TOR.

Also, I think that my dislike for more ‘fantastical’ incarnations of ME might have something to do with the fact that I read the books when I was about 10, around the late seventies. I consider those times to be some sort of a ‘pre-fantasy’ era as far as illustrations and movies go. The first images related to Tolkien that I encountered were the author’s own drawings, the works of Pauline Baynes, and later the illustrations of Tim Kirk that me and Marco Maggi admired in the War of the Ring strategy game published by SPI. Those images, combined with Tolkien’s writing, pretty much gave shape to my vision of Middle-earth well before the movies came, and even before the excellent work of Alan Lee and John Howe appeared. And that vision didn’t include things like plate mail armour or flamboyant heroics or magic bolts, but evoked tragic scenes more reminescent of Beowulf and other Nordic sagas.

J: There is a specific, tighter focus in The One Ring. Instead of being offered all of Middle-earth as a play ground for gamers, Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild presents a very specific setting focus with Mirkwood and Wilderland and a very specific character focus, considering the lack of more well-known character cultures such as Gondor, Rohan or Bree-land. While it has been stated that this focus would broaden as supplements were released and the world of Middle-earth became more detailed in the future, what was the thought and desicison making process that lead to this more narrow focus when developing this incarnartion of a role-player’s Middle-earth?

F: In the past, I have been among those gamers who strongly believed it wasn’t really possible to play a rpg set in Middle-earth. So, when I set upon the task of writing one, I tried to focus on the reasons of my own dislike. There were several, but it is possible that the main one was the lack (for me) of a genuine ‘in-world’ perspective. All too often, Tolkien enthusiasts forget that if we could really see with the eyes of an inhabitant of Middle-earth (who was not one of the few Wise…) we should forget all our notions concerning the ages of the world, well laid-out maps, our knowledge of foreign languages, and so on. So, I decided that to really provide an immersive experience, a rpg should avoid at all costs that ‘view from the outside’ perspective. We had to choose a definite ‘now’ and ‘when’, and stick to it. And Wilderland right after the tale told in The Hobbit was the perfect fit. It might not seem very reasonable now – we are in the wake of the Lord of the Rings movies after all – but we’ll see what happens when the new The Hobbit movies will start popularising the areas and cultures of Wilderland the way they did for Gondor and Rohan.

J: The One Ring uses very specific mechanics to evoke a uniquely Tolkien feel in its game-play. To facilitate this, the game uses dice that have unique symbols and images on them and specific rules involving these symbols. This choice is often regarded as controversial to many gamers and can create the perception that the game can be difficult for new gamers to approach. Was this a difficult choice when designing The One Ring and can you give the readers at the Middle-earth Network an idea of how this desision was made?

F: The underlying mechanic for TOR has been carefully designed to be read as quickly as possible, and to provide a lot of information in one roll. The creation of a set of custom dice allowed me to accomplish that design goal in a simpler and more effective way, without the need to compromise. Also, I think that the custom set of dice gives the players something special, something physical that reminds them of the world they are exploring.

J: There is a clear focus on setting over “cruch” or system rules in the One Ring, which is a departure from ICE’s Middle-earth Role-Playing and Decipher’s Lord of the Rings role-playing game. When designing Adventurers Over the Wild, what were some of the more difficult choices made, both in regards to source material and game mechanics with this priority in mind?

F: I think the most difficult choice was that regarding the exclusion of magic-using characters. Most fantasy games have one or more character types who can cast spells, and in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings we have of course Gandalf! But again everything was solved considering perspective. In a few words (it would take thousands!) I have always considered the Gandalf of the books to be a non-player character in gaming terms, as he is too much of a ‘one of a kind’ character (‘Magical’ mentor! Maia! Angelic saviour!) to be really replicable without shattering our ‘suspension of disbelief’. But this of course is an unpopular – and debatable – way to go. Luckily for those who favour the inclusion of magic users, we already have several alternative systems created by fans.

J: When The One Ring was initally released as a sleeved set of two books and specialized dice, it was initially stated that there would be three “core” sets released as the game’s timeline was progressed from the aftermath of the Battle of Five Armies to the time of the War of the Rings. Is this still the case? Each new “core” set was to detail a new region of Middle-earth as this timeline progressed. Is this still the plan for the future of The One Ring or has the path of the fellowship at Cubicle 7 Games changed?

F: A new production schedule has been revealed by Cubicle 7, and new core sets are no longer part of the plan. The idea of releasing different self-sufficient sets wasn’t really sound, as too much stuff had to be replicated from one set to the other. The reasons for the change are more complicated than that, but suffice it to say that we think that our new releases program will let us produce more supplements on a more regular basis, and that should be some welcome news for everybody!

J: Thank you so much for giving everyone here at the Middle-earth Network a chance to sit down and talk with you a bit more about the creation and development of The One Ring. It’s been a real honor to delve into the creative mind of one of the geniuses behind Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild.

F: You are way too kind. It was an honour for me to be involved in such a project, and it is a pleasure to meet like-minded people like you at the Middle-earth Network. Thank you very much!
You can learn a whole lot more about Cubicle 7 Publishing and Sophisticated Games’ The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild at their website.

About James Spahn

Part-time hobbit, full-time Tolkien fanatic, James became a fan after the release of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and within years he had devoured all things Tolkien and embraced his hobbit life. While not fond of adventures, he is enjoying his Unexpected Journey as a father, freelance table-top role-playing game author and Legendarium Media contributor.