When I was very young, both of my sisters demanded that the family gather around to watch the Rankin and Bass animated version of The Hobbit. They repeated this process when the Rankin and Bass version of Return of the King came out. As soon as the age of video rental began, around the same time that my friends and I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, we rented the Bakshi Fellowship of the Ring. Oh, and then we started reading the books. Oddly, we only briefly dabbled in Middle-earth Roleplaying, the original Tolkien-based RPG published by Iron Crown Enterprises.
In the intervening Ages of Roleplaying, we have seen The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game, published by Decipher and specifically based on the movies. In 2011, The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild was published by Cubicle 7, and the game got a revised version (integrating separate player and loremaster volumes into one book), The One Ring Roleplaying Game, in 2014. In 2016, Cubicle 7 created a D&D 5e version of the game, Adventures in Middle-earth, which adapted many of the concepts first introduced in The One Ring to d20 mechanics.
A second edition of The One Ring was announced by Cubicle 7, including a cover revealing new trade dress and artwork, but in 2019, Cubicle 7 revealed that they would no longer be publishing the roleplaying game. After a move to Free League Publishing and a successful Kickstarter, we’re now looking at the second edition of the game.
I received my copy of The One Ring: Roleplaying in the World of The Lord of the Rings as a review copy from Free League, including the PDF versions of the core book, the starter set, and the loremaster’s screen. While I am familiar with both the original game and the revised game, I’ve never had the chance to get any of them to the table.
The Shadow of Licensing
There has been some recent discussion about licensing in RPG games, and I don’t want to rehash what has been said in those discussions. Some valid points have been brought up, and some absolute statements have been made that I can’t agree with. However, there are different challenges to licensed material then with new IP.
One of those examples comes from the degree to which the licensee feels comfortable addressing the potential problematic content inherent in the licensed material. Most companies are going to treat a license with a great deal of reverence, to the point of not addressing some of the flaws native to the IP in question.
That means a work that doesn’t expressly include people of color, includes women primarily as supporting characters in stationary locations and ascribes traits to sapient beings that can parallel real-world assumptions about marginalized cultures doesn’t get specifically called out. It also means that gender is presented as a binary and wider gender identity is never addressed.
While some products based on these IPs may make sure to include women adventurers, and maybe even some artwork that implies a greater diversity in the world, there is definitely a discussion hanging in the air that never gets directly addressed out of “reverence.”
The Music of Ainur
This review is based on the PDF copy of The One Ring: Roleplaying in the World of The Lord of the Rings and is informed by looking at some of the materials available for the game in the PDF versions of the starter set and the loremaster’s screen. The core rulebook itself is 248 pages, including maps in the endpapers, a credits page, a two-page table of contents, a single page index, a copy of the character sheet used for the game, a copy of the journey log used for the game, and endpapers with a hex map for use by the loremaster for the journey phase of the game.
Each of the chapters starts with a full-color two-page spread painting, but unlike the previous edition, which featured more watercolor art, this version of the book is on cream-colored parchment-style backgrounds, with red and brown borders. Headings and sidebars are often red, with the standard font in black. The artwork within the chapters consists of detailed line drawings. The lack of more color art in this case doesn’t feel as if this edition is lacking, it is meant to evoke a slightly different feel, and the artwork is still extremely well suited to the subject matter.
It’s worth noting that, much like in Tolkien’s work, the appendices contain a lot of additional lore, including detailed explanations of several patrons, the structure for how an adventure is assumed to be formatted with a sample Landmark, and a table for generating details on Nameless Things, ancient evils that may lurk at various locations, which are not directly tied to Sauron by common origin.
Laurelin and Telperion
I wanted to take a few moments and summarize some of the biggest differences between the previous edition and the current version of the game. The first difference is one I don’t see as often when comparing new editions of games, but the core book is actually smaller for the current edition than the previous edition (248 pages versus 336 pages).
Beyond the rules presented, one of the biggest differences is that the core book focuses on an even more constrained set of locations than the previous core rulebook. The previous book invested heavily in the concept that heroes would gather around Laketown, and so portions of Eriador and Rhovanion were both detailed. This book stays much more firmly rooted in Eriador, with the primary player character touchstone locations centered on The Shire and Bree.
The cultures featured are Bardings, Dwarves of Durin’s Folk, Elves of Lindon, Hobbits of the Shire, Men of Bree, and Rangers of the North. This shifts some of the expected homes for the elves and dwarves, excludes the Beornings and Woodmen of Wilderland, and adds in the Numenorean descended rangers that didn’t appear until later products in the original line.
The adversaries detailed shift along with the focus of the core rules. Spiders don’t appear, since they are often associated with Mirkwood, and vampires/shadow corrupted bats don’t show up in this volume either. There are also statistics for bandits, thugs, and ruffians from among the Humans of the region.
While patrons were always a part of The One Ring, instead of assuming that adventurers will gather and have their first adventure, then use their Fellowship phase to gain a patron, part of the process of creating a company is to select a patron at the start. The previous edition had Beorn and Radagast detailed as early patrons, while the new edition details Balin, Bilbo, Cirdan the Shipwright, Gandalf, Gilraen the Fair (Aragorn’s mother), and Tom Bombadil and Goldberry as potential starting patrons.
When it comes to changes in the rules, there are many terms that have crossed over from the previous edition, but how they are expressed or resolved may have changed. We’ll take a look at these when we dive a bit deeper into the mechanics of the game.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
The rulebook is divided into the following sections:
- Action Resolution
- Valour and Wisdom
- Adventuring Phases
- Fellowship Phases
- The Loremaster
- The World
This maintains the general structure of the previous core rulebook, although instead of detailing the assumed unfolding campaign that was detailed for the previous edition, The Campaign is replaced with The World, and the sample adventure is moved to the appendix and formatted in the more “sandbox” adventure format that the current edition recommends.
As with the previous edition of the rules, the assumed timeframe for campaigns using this game is the time period between the end of The Hobbit and the beginning of The Fellowship of the Rings. Sauron has returned to Mordor, ill-omens are starting to appear to those knowledgeable of the wider world, but the death of Smaug and the refounding of Dale and Erebor have had some resonance with the overall demeanor of folk.
Many of the details presented in the book focus on the western side of the Misty Mountains, and even the patrons presented reinforce this starting place. Dwarves are likely to come from the Blue Mountains, and the elves are assumed to be associated with the Grey Havens. Hobbits and humans come from either The Shire or Bree, with some traveling humans coming from the rebuilt lands of Dale. Rangers, the descendants of Numenor, with ties to fallen Arnor, are also presented.
The assumption of the core rules is that you will have a patron that will point you towards resolving something within their interests, and each of the patrons has their own areas of interest. For example, Bilbo will send adventurers out looking for old maps and lost tales, while Gilraen is more likely to be interested in missions that gather information of impending doom and gloom.
Because the core rules emphasize Eriador and the near environs, there are many references to old ruins in Arnor, as well as the dangers presented by wolves, trolls, and orcs to travelers. Dunlendings raiding into the north are also presented as a recurring danger, and the further you get from home, the easier it is to run into creatures like wights that inhabit long-lost tombs.
While there aren’t a large number of foes presented in the core rulebook, I think the emphasis on the ruins of Arnor and other locations is going to get a good amount of millage, especially with the section for randomly generated “Nameless Things” that might be living in any number of those ruins.
It’s probably worth noting that part of the focus on these ruins is likely that it plays into the suggested way of framing an adventure. This adventure framework is centered around Landmarks. For whatever reason, likely the wishes of a patron, the PCs will need to locate a landmark. They will find out where the landmark is, enter the journey phase to get there, find some complication around the landmark making it difficult to access, and find other complications within the landmark. The landmark likely has a mystery surrounding it, which could just be “where is the thing my patron wants,” and once the PCs navigate all of the opposition and learn what they will about the landmark, they can travel home and settle in for a Fellowship phase.
Making characters involves several steps, many of which may seem similar to the previous edition of the game (but there are some changes):
- Choose a Heroic Culture
- Choose a Cultural Blessing
- Determine Attributes
- Calculate Strength, Heart, and Wits target numbers
- Calculate Endurance, Hope, and Parry
- Record Skill and Combat Ratings
- Choose a Calling
- Pick a Starting Reward and Virtue
Cultural Blessings are similar to what other games would call feats, advantages, or stunts. They are specific to a particular culture. It’s also worth noting that various cultures are distinct in the game. For example, if you look in the Loremaster’s Screen and the included Rivendell information, you can see that Rivendell Elves have a different culture than Elves of Lindon.
Attributes are interesting, both in how they work and in how they have changed from the original edition of the game. In the previous edition, they were added to favored skill rolls as bonus dice. Now, they are used to generate your base difficulty when resolving tasks that are related to that statistic. In other words, you aren’t rolling against varying target numbers, you are rolling against your target number for that ability. This makes the impact of these attributes more persistent during the game.
Endurance is a measure of how long you can keep going. Hope is a measure of your spiritual fortitude, which can be lowered by external forces like Endurance, but can also be spent at certain times. Parry is the number added to the difficulty that an opponent needs to roll to harm you.
Callings are the way you approach adventuring. These can give you distinctive features (which give you bonus dice when you spend hope to add dice to your die pool), favored skills (which let you roll with favour, i.e. two feat dice, take the better result), and your Shadow Path. The Shadow Path is the way your shadow scars manifest if you lose hope too many times. Callings include:
- Captain (leading others)
- Champion (front line fighter)
- Messenger (the party “face”)
- Scholar (carrying obscure knowledge of the past)
- Treasure Hunter (skilled at bypassing obstacles between themselves and valuable items)
- Warden (a protector looking for patterns that signal a greater evil)
“You have nice manners for a thief and a liar”
So how do you resolve actions? You build a dice pool. This consists of a number of d6s, and usually a single d12. If you get the dice made for the game, 1-3 are “hollow” on the d6, six has a success rune on it, and the d12 has the eye of Sauron on the 11 and the rune of Gandalf on the 12. What does all that mean?
A task will have a target number based on the core attribute associated with your skill. You pick up a number of dice equal to your skill for the task, as well as the d12 feat die. If you spend hope, you can add an extra die to your pool, or more than one if you have distinctions that relate to the skill you are attempting. If your dice add up to the target number or higher, you are successful. If you have multiple 6s, you gain a greater degree of success. If you roll the Eye of Sauron, something bad happens, and if you roll the Gandalf rune, you are successful regardless of your total.
An ill-favored roll means you roll two feat dice and take the worst result, while a favored roll means you roll two and take the best result. If a character has more Shadow points than Hope, the Eye of Sauron is an automatic failure. If the character has less Endurance than Load (from the gear they carry), then 1-3 on the d6s don’t count towards the total number.
There are some new additions to the skill system, and some new ways of expressing what was possible in the old system. In some circumstances, characters may have abilities that grant them the ability to achieve magical success. This means that if they spend hope, they automatically succeed, although they still roll their dice pool to see if they get additional degrees of success. These are described as obviously magical ways to resolve things that can be done with normal skills, like Legolas running over the top of snow without sinking in.
In addition, some tasks have Resistance. Resistance is used for more complicated tasks that are not likely to be resolved with a single skill test. This is one area where the success runes from the d6s will come into play, as they count as additional successes that can be applied towards lowering the resistance of the roll. This system is the default for resolving Councils, where the PCs are trying to convince someone to take action that they have advised, but is also used for other complex tasks.
In addition to all of this, there are now risk levels for non-combat skills, setting the stakes for success and failure. I’m fairly certain these exist precisely because all of your target numbers are set by your ability scores, and this allows the loremaster to present challenges with a wider range of outcomes. Actions are defined as being Standard Actions, Hazardous Actions, or Foolish Actions. A Standard Action allows for a success with a complication, or “woe,” if the check is not a success. A Hazardous action failure is a failure with “woe,” and a Foolish action failure is a disaster.
“If by my life or death I can protect you, I will. ”
How does all of this apply to combat? When combat is engaged, both sides, if they have ranged weapons, get to shoot at one another while they close. It’s up to the Loremaster to determine if one side gets an extra volley, or how many volleys go up before the two sides meet.
When both sides meet up, player characters choose stances. The stances are as follows:
- Forward Stance (Easier for you to hit, easier to hit you)
- Open Stance (No modifications to hit)
- Defensive Stance (Harder to hit you, harder for you to hit)
- Rearward Stance (Must have two other companions in other stances, can use ranged)
Opponents will have parry scores that are added to the difficulty of the target number used by the player characters, while the opponents are rolling against the parry ability of the player character. Most attacks do endurance damage, meaning that a defeated character isn’t dead when they are defeated, but rolling well on the feat die means a character has to roll against gaining a wound. Wounded opponents are out of the fight, but wounded PCs roll on a wound severity chart. If they roll poorly, or gain a second wound, they must be treated within an hour, or they die.
Since a character that has a higher load than their endurance is exhausted, characters can throw off a helmet or a shield to reduce their load, pushing them back above their load limit. Hooray for dramatic rules interactions, although, if you must make a wound check after ditching your helmet, it may look dramatic in the opposite direction.
“May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks.”
The thing that many people talked about from the first edition of The One Ring were the Journey rules. Travel in Tolkien’s novels is a big part of the adventure, and the Journey rules are written to create stories about getting from here to there.
As in the previous edition, the maps in the game are important, because the hexes on the map determine how long the PCs go before they run into a challenge. PCs pick a route on the PC map, which the Loremaster matches on theirs. PCs take on the role of Guide, Hunter, Look-out, or Scout. The Guide’s marching test is important because it determines how many hexes into the journey an event happens.
There is a Journey Events table that details how many points of fatigue the party gains, as well as the consequences of what happens if one of the other party members fails with their rolls associated with their role in the Journey. An especially bad event may even lead to someone in the party being wounded on the road.
In most cases, a Journey Event is resolved with a single roll. The group determines what happened and how it affected them, or how they averted disaster. The book also mentions that different regions may have more specific Journey Events tables (which I can confirm by looking in the starter set).
“Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”
Before we go too much further, I wanted to discuss a change in the rules that is both a minor change, and also a potentially very impactful change. Before we talk about the mechanical aspects of adversaries, I wanted to point out that characters can gain points of Shadow from misdeeds. In other words, doing something clearly wrong, like torturing someone or needless cruelty, nets you Shadow points.
Adversaries have simplified, but similar, abilities compared to player characters. Where player characters can spend hope for extra dice and sometimes to trigger special effects, adversaries now have two different pools that function similarly to hope: Resolve or Hate.
In the previous edition of the game, all adversaries had Hate as a resource pool as opposed to the player character’s Hope pool. Now, Resolve is opponents not lost to the Shadow, and Hate is given to opponents that are firmly in the grasp of The Enemy. How does this affect the game? Well, if you kill someone that has resolve as a resource pool, you might perform a misdeed, but if you kill someone that has Hate as a resource pool, you can hardly be blamed for it.
Yeah, I don’t like it. All orcs, trolls, wraiths, and wolves detailed in the section have hatred. The human bandits and ruffians don’t. So in a game where we previously didn’t have a de facto alignment system, we now have a mechanic that says it’s okay to kill some sapient beings, and not others.
What’s even more perplexing about this is that in some of the entries, you have lore bits that come from the Legendarium, explaining that Great Orcs are evil spirits that took the form of orcs to lead them for their masters, and that some powerful, evil animals, like Hounds of Sauron, are actually evil spirits possessing animals. It feels like if you really wanted to implement this rule, you could have at least shown that Great Orcs and Werewolves have Hatred, but common orcs don’t.
Heroes in the Lord of the Rings didn’t raid orc holdings and murder them in their homes. Even in The Hobbit it’s mentioned that goblins and dwarves don’t necessarily hate one another. Tolkien himself was constantly torn on orc souls and their disposition in the afterlife.
Honestly, I would rather just leave the pool for all enemies as Hatred. It might even be some fun design space to allow for characters to be “talked down” or convinced to stop fighting if they run out of hatred.
“The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.”
The other aspect of The One Ring that was often noted is the Fellowship Phase, a built-in downtime that happens between adventures. There are a few changes to how this works in second edition, but it’s still a similar process.
At the end of an adventure, player characters can return to a place they have previously visited. Each character can spend skill points and adventure points to advance their characters. They can then start an Undertaking, which may be something like gathering rumors, healing scars, or meeting a new patron.
Standard Fellowship Phases are a few weeks to a month, while the Yule Fellowship Phase is meant to ride out the winter months away from travel. Some Undertakings are only available during the longer Yule Fellowship Phase. One example of a Yule Fellowship Phase is Raising an Heir, which allows you to spend treasure to train someone close to you to the adventuring life, who can take your place should you retire, or, you know, be retired. Different callings may also have Undertakings they can engage for free during the Fellowship Phase.
Are you afraid that there won’t be a rule to reinforce the idea that people will burst into song during a fight or a long journey? One of the Undertakings is to write a song. Songs can be used during Adventuring Phases to allow the company to ignore being weary for a scene. You can only use a song once during the adventuring phase, until you take another Fellowship Phase.
Smeagol Even with what I consider a serious misstep in design, this game is extremely focused on the story it wants to emulate and knows right where to put the weight of its design.
The previous edition of this game was hailed as a near perfect game to capture the feeling of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and this edition feels more streamlined and clearer in how it presents its rules. I like the slightly contracted scope of the core books, which allows for a more incremental expansion into the wider world as more products become available. This highlights some of the key elements of the stories to mechanize.
I also appreciate the shift towards picking a patron early, and the expansion of available patrons. I like that there is a balance between patrons that will be recognizable to more casual fans, as well as those that support different members of the Heroic Cultures presented in the book. In a world with a very strongly defined core story, the patrons and their areas of interest really help to focus what jobs adventurers may be doing in this timeframe. I also appreciate the discussion of the Red Book of Westmarch as being written by potentially unreliable narrators, hence, don’t worry too much about canon deviations.
I really wish there had been meta-discussion about the shortcomings of Tolkien’s writing, from the lack of prominent, active women heroes to the potential problems of demonizing entire cultures. While I believe there are far worse authorial sins that have gone unaddressed or under-addressed in game products, I feel like the aura of reverence is what keeps any critique from appearing in the book. There also isn’t a discussion of content warnings or active safety tools, which I feel shouldn’t be missing in modern RPGs.
What magnifies the above is including a new mechanic that functionally creates the same abdication of moral responsibility as alignment in Dungeons & Dragons. There really shouldn’t be any rule in a game that absolves a player character from the consequences of their actions because the target of their action somehow “doesn’t count.”
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
Even with what I consider a serious misstep in design, this game is extremely focused on the story it wants to emulate and knows right where to put the weight of its design. If you aren’t a Tolkien fan, you may even get some ideas of how to gamify elements from a narrative from studying the structure of this game.
With all of that said, I really wish we could move forward into a time where even licensed products are willing to engage with the flaws of their inspirational material, and where reverence doesn’t outshine honest discourse. Given his many letters on a broad variety of topics, I don’t think Professor Tolkien would be above an honest dissection of his work and the biases that shaped it.