And in the darkness bind them… The One Ring RPG

The One Ring Core Rules

2nd Edition

Author: Francesco Nepitello, et al.
Publisher: Free League Publishing
Page Count: 248
Available Formats: PDF & Print
PDF (DTRPG) – $24.95
Print – 478.00 kr (approx. $50.00)

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost

A Long-Expected Party

JRR Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, made famous by The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, has a long history with roleplaying games (RPGs). Its influence on Dungeons and Dragons is readily apparent—and the original D&D needed to tweak some of its terminologies to avoid running afoul of trademark monsters.

Before The One Ring, there were two licensed RPG adaptations—Iron Crown’s Middle Earth RPG, based on Rolemaster, and Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG. Cubicle 7 published the 1st edition of The One Ring RPG but chose to drop their license late in developing the 2nd edition. The license has since been picked up by Free League Publishing, which recently released their 2nd edition of The One Ring.

This review looks at The One Ring with reasonably fresh eyes—while I have some familiarity with its 1st edition (and snagged digital copies when Cubicle 7 dramatically dropped prices at the end of their license), I’m far from an expert in it.

To begin, The One Ring is an exceptionally gorgeous book, even in an era of gorgeous RPG books. It is available in hardcover and PDF, with a limited edition available to Kickstarter backers. As I flipped through my physical copy, I found myself reminded of a hardcover copy of Lord of the Rings I remember checking out from my town library in the 1980s—cream-colored pages with black and red text. It is illustrated with black and white images within the book’s chapters and two-page cover illustrations heading each chapter. My PDF is 248 pages long and heavily bookmarked for easy navigation.

I did find two curiosities as I read the book. First, as far as I could tell, the game is very stingy when providing examples—whether of character generation, action, etc. The other oddity is every once in a while; I found the words used to be a little on the odd side. This didn’t so much create problems with comprehension but instead made me pause on occasion, taking note of instances of unusual choices in wording or phrasing.

A Conspiracy Unmasked – Understanding Characters

So what is The One Ring About? It is a fantasy RPG set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. By default, it is the year 2965 of the Third Age, nearly 25 years after the events of The Hobbit and over fifty years from the main events of The Lord of the Rings. It assumes a game set in Eriador, consisting of much of the former kingdom of Arnor, including places such as the Shire, Bree, the Barrow-Downs, and Weathertop. Player Heroes (as PCs are referred to) can be from several cultures—Bardings, Dwarves of Durin’s Folk, Elves of Lindon, Hobbits of the Shire, Men of Bree, or Rangers of the North. Additionally, a Player Hero belongs to one of six Callings – Captain, Champion, Messenger, Scholar, Treasure Hunter, and Warden.

Time in the game is broken into two types of phases. There is the Adventuring Phase and the Fellowship Phase. The bulk of a game will be spent in the Adventuring Phase. The game describes three frequent activities during an Adventuring Phase:

  • The Journey – Player Heroes plot their path through the Wilderness, trying to safely make it to their destination.
  • Council —  for scenes with heavy interaction. The Player Heroes are likely hoping for some outcome—access to a particular information, assistance in their quest, etc.
  • Combat for adjudicating action scenes.

The Fellowship Phase represents significant downtime at a place of safety. It is a chance for characters to recuperate, improve, work on special projects, etc. In Tolkien’s novels, Fellowship Phases can be assumed to occur at places like Rivendell, Beorn’s Homestead, and Lothlorien.

How does the game play? In my opinion, everything in the game feels designed to emulate the setting of Middle Earth, as portrayed by Tolkien. It is a world where the adventurers are assumed to be the “good guys.” This doesn’t mean they are without flaws. The rules include mechanics for slipping into Shadow or madness—as seen by Thorin Oakenshield or Boromir of Gondor. Characters may desire treasure, but the rules are unkind to them if they become the types of people who prey on innocents or deal out wanton destruction and suffering.

Characters in The One Ring have three skill categories – Strength, Heart, and Wits. Each skill category has its own rating. The higher the rating, the lower the default Target Number (TN) when trying to succeed in actions. Within a skill category are six distinct skills. A character may have zero or more “Success Dice” in each skill.

When making an action, characters will roll a single “Feat Die” and zero or more “Success dice,” totaling up the results and attempting to beat a TN based on the skill category rating. The feat die is a 12-sided die with the numbers 1-10 and two runes—an Eye of Sauron and a Gandalf Rune. The Eye of Sauron counts as a 0 (and may carry other negative consequences). The Gandalf Rune means the character automatically beats the TN.

In addition to adding to the total, the Success Dice also have an elvish icon on the sixes. On a successful task roll, each of those sixes is considered a special success that provides some bonus—additional effects in combat, canceling another character’s failure, performing actions silently or quickly, etc. Characters who are Exhausted suffer a penalty when rolling Success Dice – the numbers 1, 2, and 3 are hollow, indicating they count as 0 for Exhausted characters.

Characters also have characteristics not realized by numbers—Favoured Skills, Distinctive Features, Valour, and Wisdom. These characteristics, coupled with a character’s spending of Hope (described below), whether they are Exhausted/Miserable, etc., provide mechanical bonuses to these rolls. An action may be Favoured or Disfavoured, meaning the Feat Die is rolled twice, and the better or worse result is kept. Similarly, additional Success Dice may be rolled based on these conditions and characteristics.

From my limited playtest (my group did character generation and has a single session under our belts), I feel the game does a good job emulating the feel of Tolkien’s works, not being overly tactical. I can see how it could emulate two tired Hobbits at the end of their limits trudging through Mordor, with combat being far from the only danger they face. And how a well-placed song can give characters enough Hope to carry on. While it excels at genre emulation, it stops short of highly narrative games like Fate, where players have options to give them literal control over the narrative. It’s a setting where knowing the right song for the occasion has a mechanical effect to help the Player Heroes make their way through moments of despair and exhaustion.

A Short Rest – Fellowship and Magic

We’ve yet to reach a Fellowship Phase in our game. Still, from reading, they are somewhat reminiscent of the Winter Phase one might find in Pendragon—especially with the expectation of an occasional Fellowship Phase taking place over Yule. In another similarity to Pendragon, characters can dedicate experience they gain to the creation of an heir—like Frodo being Bilbo’s heir.

The Fellowship itself is an essential resource for the characters. They are expected to have a patron—someone like Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey, Tom Bombadil, etc. Depending on their patron, characters may be able to spend from a pool of Fellowship Points for one or more special effects.

Characters might begin with certain unique pieces of gear called Rewards—lightweight but protective armor, keen weapons, etc. They also may have particular Virtues that provide specific mechanical bonuses. As they improve, they can get more Rewards and Virtues, with better Virtues often based on a character’s culture – like the Hobbit’s ability to vanish or have a deadly aim.

While it is possible that characters – especially elves – might have access to some magic effects, these are not the flashy magic spells of most fantasy literature or games. Most magic in the game is in the form of Virtues that provide an opportunity for Magical success. Specifically, by spending a point of Hope before a Skill roll, the character will pass their action automatically, regardless of the target number. From the text:

For example, a Player-hero who attempts to intimidate some guards with a roll of AWE seems to grow in stature, as the light dims and the shadows lengthen around the character. Or again, a Player-hero rolling SONG makes the listeners experience visions of what the music is about.

The Clouds Burst – Combat

While the game is not highly tactical in its combat, it manages to have its own style, with an opening salvo of missile fire followed by characters engaging in the main part of combat. During their actions, Player Heroes declare what stance they take:

  • Forward stance – Attack rolls gain a bonus success die, but opponents get a bonus die when attacking you. Instead of attacking, characters can do an Intimidate action.
  • Open stance – No bonuses or penalties. Instead of attacking, you can do a Rally Comrade action.
  • Defensive stance – Attack rolls lose a success die, but opponents lose one when attacking you. Instead of attacking, you can do a Protect Companion action.
  • Rearward stance – This allows you to continue making missile attacks. Instead of attacking, you can Prepare a Shot. For each Player Hero in a Rearward stance, there must be at least two others in a close combat stance.

Characters’ physical reserves are measured by their Endurance, based on their Strength score. Attacks are made against a foe’s Parry rating (based on their Wits score). Sixes on an attack’s success dice give additional bonuses—possibly providing protection from later attacks, doing extra damage, or doing a Piercing Blow. Piercing Blows are akin to “critical hits” and require the defender to make a Feat Roll, adding success dice based on their armor’s Protection score. Piercing Blows are also achieved on a roll of 10 or a Gandalf Rune on the attack’s Feat Die. Characters who fail this roll are wounded (NPCs are typically killed by this). Characters wounded twice are Dying—and on a bad roll against a Piercing Blow can inflict two wounds.

Endurance isn’t just used for damage. Characters also track the total of their Load (from gear) and Fatigue (accumulated during a Journey). When this is higher than their current Endurance, they are Exhausted.

(All these capitalized terms like Exhausted, Dying, Wounded are conditions that impact a character.)

A final type of reserve is a character’s Hope. It is based on their Heart rating. At its simplest, it provides a pool of points that can be used to gain an additional Success Die when attempting tasks. A character might be Inspired (for example, if they have a Distinctive Feature appropriate for their task)—in such a case, the character gains two extra Success Dice. However, characters also need to keep track of Shadow—when a character’s Shadow score exceeds their Hope, they become Miserable. Shadow points are accumulated by doing “bad” things or exposure to horrifying or corrupting things. As a character’s Shadow increases, they may descend into madness, like Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring.

The Council of Elrond – Loremaster Guidance

The last sections of the book provide guidance for Loremasters—both mechanically and in running games in Middle Earth.

One of my favorite parts is a section discussing the “canon” of Middle Earth and the idea of unreliable narrators. It outlines how nowadays, people tend to view Tolkien’s creation as static while he was making adjustments and alterations throughout his life. Regarding unreliable narrators, it discusses the difference between the dwarfs in The Hobbit—bumblers who would not survive without the help of Bilbo, vs. the far more competent beings seen in The Lord of the Rings—suggesting The Hobbit was clearly told through Bilbo’s lens.

This chapter also has a sort of “monster manual” for Middle Earth, consisting of folk like bandits, orcs, wolves, undead, etc.

Treasure hoards can potentially include Marvelous Artrefacts (as spelled in the game) and Wondrous Items and Famous Weapons and Armour—and it typically includes material wealth. Loremasters are encouraged to chart out what items the various characters will be “destined” to find during play. The One Ring is given as an example of something that in a campaign might have initially been considered a moderately useful Artefact that became considerably more important over the course of a campaign.

There is also a chapter on Middle Earth, specifically the Eriador region. At its base, it does the essential job of giving details on locations adventurers might visit (with beautiful accompanying regional maps). It excels at being useful during gameplay, with stats for allies and foes, random tables for encounters (whether in the wilds or the Inn of the Prancing Pony), and adventure ideas.

The book closes with appendices, giving details on Patrons; a primer on designing Landmarks for adventures; a sample Landmark/mini-adventure “The Star of the Mist,” a ruined fortified town of Arthedain; and random tables for generating Nameless Things.

The Last Stage – Closing Thoughts

While my experience with the system is still somewhat nascent, it is clear this is an RPG whose design is focused on emulating Professor Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

From our playtest, it was clear GMs/Loremasters need to be prepared to interpret dice rolls and bring them to life, especially during Journeys. Otherwise, there is the danger of the process feeling repetitive. In our game, the characters’ journey took them through the Shire, with a beneficial chance encounter being interpreted as an evening with Master Bilbo Baggins at the Green Dragon.

One important note is like all the Middle Earth RPGs that have been licensed, the license is only for The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings—supplemental works like The Silmarillion are not part of this license. I’m not an expert on such material, having finally begun making progress in my third attempt at reading The Silmarillion. From what I can tell, the game is careful not to contradict any such material.

If I could change one thing, I’d have loved more examples in the text—like a sample combat encounter, building a character, etc. The game covers a lot of material, but I occasionally wished it would go a little deeper. This will likely be less of a problem as more supplemental material comes out. If you have access to the 1st edition material for The One Ring, that remains very usable for this edition. Regrettably, that material is no longer available for sale.

The One Ring does a great job of bringing Tolkien’s Middle Earth to life. It’s not a world for cold-hearted adventurers who take joy in the pain of others and are only interested in personal gain. But it is a world for the adventurous, those who want to see where the road will take them and who will stand for what is right.

~ Daniel Stack

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