Overall, I find it a very interesting game that very heavily recreates the sort of problems facing characters forced to make long-distance journeys, battle against horrible enemies, bandy words with silver-tongued corruptors, and have to occasionally retire to a sanctuary in order to refresh depleted resources or heal injuries.
The default Target Number is 14 working on the assumption that 3 ranks in a skill represents someone of about journeyman level skill.
This is pretty standard for most games and it is at this point that the differences in the dice come in.
As such, a die roll of "G, 4, 4" is a normal success because the G rune is an automatic success but there are no 6s on the success dice while a result of "E, 6, 4, 2, 3" is a total of 15 with one 6 which means it is usually going to be a Great success (default TN of 14) unless there is some circumstance that causes the Eye of Sauron to trigger terrible things.
This has interesting ramifications on the probabilities of success and critical success since it means that even unskilled individuals have a 1 in 12 chance of succeeding on the dice alone but you have to have skill in order to have more than a normal success. It also means that you do not necessarily have to add the total of your die roll. If you see a G then you know that you have a success and only have to see if there are any 6s that are upgrading the level of success. Likewise, if you see two 6s on success dice you just have to see if there's enough points left over to get you over the TN and you then have an extraordinary success.
In addition to the dice total, you can choose to spend a point of Hope in order to add the value of the appropriate attribute (Body, Heart, or Wits) to the roll. This can be done after the roll is totaled. If the skill was favored you use a higher value for that Attribute than normal.
Building a character involves choosing a culture, a background, and a calling with a few points of customization.
Cultures are essentially races. They grant a cultural blessing, a set of starting common skills, two traits chosen from a list, a favored skill, a standard of living, and one of two weapon skill sets.
Backgrounds are connected to cultures and grant you base attributes, another favored skill, and two more traits chosen from a list.
Callings are essentially classes and provide another trait (specific to each calling), a shadow weakness, and the ability to choose two more favored skills from two categories.
The base game gives rules for creating characters from the following cultures: Dwarves of Lonely Mountain, Bardings of Dale, Beornings, Woodmen, Silvan Elves of Mirkwood, and Hobbits of the Shire. Noldor and Dunadan are available in the Rivendell book but have special rules and it is advised that they might not fit the average party.
There are five callings: scholars, wanderers, wardens, treasure hunters, and slayers.
Once those are chosen, you are given some starting experience with which you can improve Common skills and the ability to choose between starting with 2 Wisdom and 1 Valor or 2 Valor and 1 Wisdom.
Starting with 2 Wisdom grants you a starting "Virtue" which can be drawn from a general set or from culture specific blessings. For example, Elves can gain the ability to speak animals and plants, Woodmen can gain a loyal hound, and Beornings can gain the ability to astrally project in bear form.
Starting with 2 Valor grants you a starting "Reward" which are upgrades to gear and can again be drawn from a common set or else from culture specific Rewards.
"Magic" is definitely present but, typical of Tolkien's stories during the Third Age of Middle Earth, very low key.
Advancement only occurs during what is called the Fellowship phase which will be discussed below.
There are two sorts of character advancement methods. Advancement Points are gained by successful use of Common Skills and used to improve Common Skills. Experience Points are gained at the end of sessions and adventures and used to improve Wisdom, Valor and Weapon Skills.
As implied in the section above, each level of Wisdom and Valor after the 1st grants either a Virtue (Wisdom) or Reward (Valor). Rewards can be acquired in game such as by being given a weapon of quality or having your own old sword be repaired and/or enchanted as desired by the player.
The game uses a lot of pre-arranged structures which they represent mostly as a guide for beginners.
The overall structure involves two phases, the Adventure phase where the company is taking on a specific issue followed by a Fellowship phase where characters spend a period resting from one week to three months in a place of safety.
The events of The Hobbit are given as an example of four Adventure Phases and four Fellowship Phases:
First Set: Into the Wilderlands, Rivendell Fellowship Phase
Second Set: Over the Misty Mountains, Beorn's House Fellowship Phase
Third Set: Through Mirkwood, Lake Town Fellowship Phase
Fourth Set: Dragon and Battle of Five Armies, everyone goes home for last Fellowship Phase.
The game states that the assumption is that the characters will have one major Adventure per year with a significant time spent on Fellowship phases and relatively normal life. Note that character advancement only happens in Fellowship phases and that that phase also allows for characters learning news of the world, improving their social standing, recovering from despair or injury, and other things.
I would also note here that the game assumes that Combat events should on average happen once every two sessions, though they admit that that depends heavily on preferred playstyle.
There are three kinds of events: Journeys, Combats, and Encounters. Before each set characters are often able to make skill rolls to generate bonus dice to use over the episode which represent
Journeys are abstracted methods of simulating the difficulties of traveling long distances by either foot or on horse. The game comes with detailed maps included an Adventurer's copy meant to be used to note routes taken and things discovered by the players and a Loremaster's copy which has more gameplay related notation such as a visible hex grid, color-coordinated regional types, markers for the types of lands being passed through and other such things. Journey's are taken when the players choose a route to go from one place to another so that the Loremaster can calculate the number of days it would take and thus how many Fatigue rolls are required. Players assign members of their party to roles such as Guide, Scout, Hunter, and Look-Out which come up in case one of the Fatigue rolls produces a hazard. Hazards are typically resolved in a single role, for example a Loremaster might decide any assigned Hunters face a Hazard which might cause them to suffer injury (perhaps they run afoul of a wild boar) and have them make roles to see if they avoid the consequences. Season and terrain affect length of travel and, optionally, the difficulty of Fatigue rolls. It is possible for a Combat to result as a hazard, but it is not a high probability. Most of the time you'll have things like losing the path, food spoiling, or the above example with the boar.
Combats are mostly theater of the mind. You first check to see if anybody is surprised and determine which side holds initiative (referred to as the Defenders). This is followed by a volley of missiles which is considered near-simultaneous. Then general battle occurs. Players choose their stances with the Rearward stance requiring that at least two other people choose one of the three other stances so that they are between you and the enemy and give you the opportunity to use missile weapons. Also, you cannot use Rearward Stance if the party is outnumbered by 2 to 1 or more, unless there's some physical feature like a bridge to act as bottleneck. The stance chosen decides all target numbers related to that character, antagonists do not choose stances. A player choosing to go in boldly and recklessly rolls attacks against a Target of 6+Parry but their enemies roll against the same target to attack them. Someone more cautiously choosing the Defensive Stance has a Target Number of 12 + Parry but so do their enemies. Ranged weapon is always against a Target Number of 12 + Parry to account for firing into combat. The Loremaster than assigns the enemies to target the characters.
Encounters are social situations and have two phases, though it is often possible that you only need the first. There is the Introduction phase and the Interaction phase. The Introduction phase is used by the players to determine who is speaking for them or whether they are all going to speak for themselves. Characters that don't introduce themselves don't directly take part in the interactions though they can perhaps used skills to passively observe and give the people that did step forward to speak for them advice. The interaction phase starts with the characters stating the intent they have for the interaction and then proceeds. The Loremaster assigns a Tolerance based on the characters' renown and the NPCs prejudices. The Tolerance represents the number of failed rolls it takes before the NPC cuts off the interaction and the players fail to get their intention. Should the players succeed, how well they succeed is based on how many successes they achieved on their rolls in the interaction with Great and Exceptional successes counting as 2 and 3 successes respectively.
Health and Corruption
Health in the game is represented primarily by Endurance which is basically hit points. When you are hit in combat you suffer an amount of damage equal to the weapon's damage rating, a static number usually less than 10. If the attack was a Great success then the attacker adds their personal damage bonus (equal to their Body stat) and if it was an Extraordinary success then the attacker multiplies the personal damage bonus by 2.
A normal hit with a sword is 5 damage. A Great hit by a character with 6 Body deals 11 (5+6) damage. An Exceptional hit deals 17 (5 + 6x2).
If your Endurance drops below your Fatigue levels (based on what you are carrying) then you become Weary which affects your ability to succeed (1-3 on Success dice now count as 0).
If your Endurance drops to 0 you fall unconscious and are at your enemy's mercy unless your friends can save you.
You can also suffer a Wound. This happens when you suffer a Piercing Blow (which happens if the Feat die on an attack rolls equal to or higher than a weapon's Edge rating) and then fail a Protection roll (based on armor worn and against a target number based on the weapon's Injury rating). Poison also counts as being Wounded.
If you are Wounded and drop to 0 Endurance you are unconscious and dying. If you are Wounded and suffer a second Wound you are unconscious but aren't dying unless your Endurance is also 0. If you are Wounded and then reduced to 0 at the same time as suffering a second Wound, you die outright.
In addition to meaning you are now at risk of death, Wounds cause you to recover from injury slower. It is possible to Treat a wound but this just means you recover slightly faster than if untreated. Wounds only go away once your Endurance reaches your normal maximum again. Endurance recovers very slowly while traveling so it would usually require a Fellowship phase to clear a Wound.
Corruption is similar and represents not so much in the way of turning evil as it represents a number of different ways one might be overwhelmed by negative emotions. Depression, rage, greed, all of it is represented by this. The character has a number of Shadow points that starts at 0 and grows based on performing questionable deeds or suffering terrible ordeals. If your total Hope drops below your Shadow rating then you become Miserable. Once you are Miserable you are at risk of having a bout of madness come over you where the Loremaster will control your actions. Each time you have one of those bouts of madness you gain a permanent negative trait based on your calling's Shadow Weakness and can eventually be removed from play due to madness.
Another important note is that if your Hope goes to 0 you automatically flee from battle or any other stress such as an argument, so while spending Hope grants you benefits, it is not wise to do so quickly. Hope, like most other things, recovers slowly or not at all outside the Fellowship phase.