So here it is. After a whole bunch of hubbub and more angry Tweeting than you can shake a stick at, The One Ring has been released. And what does that get us? The One Ring, Second Edition, is the official licensed roleplaying game of The Lord of the Rings, and is the jewel of the crown of Sophisticated Games, a company you’ve likely never heard of because all they do is hold intellectual property. Sophisticated Games is the root cause of every kerfluffle about this particular game, because they decided to hang Cubicle 7 out to dry back in 2019.
The exact circumstances of the dispute that led to the publication license for The One Ring shifting from Cubicle 7 to Free League aren’t knowable unless there’s a copy of the distribution contract floating around, and they ultimately aren’t that important. The License Holder told their Publisher to jump and expected them to say ‘how high’, in essence, but the actual development of the game didn’t really change much. The second edition of The One Ring is basically the same second edition that Cubicle 7 would have published, and it has the same designers and the same basic mechanics as the first edition. If there had been no legal dispute and as a result no publisher transition and therefore no Kickstarter, well, this edition would have been published a) nearly two years earlier and b) to much less fanfare. But hey, you have to make your money somehow. Clearly I have a bit of cynicism about The One Ring, but to be honest, the game itself is solid and the designers, at least, deserve credit for that. When what you’re buying, though, is the expensive licensed version of what the RPG hobby has been producing in one form or another for the past 45 years, well…it’s fair to ask some questions. But let’s talk about the game first.
The One Ring doesn’t stray all that far away from fantasy RPG genre conventions, but it’s far enough away that, considering the source material, you should take notice. The dice rolling is mostly standard, although there is an accumulative dice mechanic that is interesting. That all said, the faces of the core die, the ‘Feat’ die, are changed just enough to make rolls without the game’s custom dice kind of annoying. The Feat die is a d12, and has the numbers one through ten plus two symbols (which, if you only had normal dice at home, you’d substitute for the 11 and the 12). The two symbols are the Rune of Gandalf and the Eye of Sauron which, in essence, resemble a critical success and a critical failure, respectively. In addition to the Feat Die some circumstances will see you roll Success Dice, which are d6s, albeit with an additional symbol on the 6 face. That symbol on the 6 face is used to indicate a ‘Special Success’, which, like in many systems, is a set of benefits that come from just rolling extra well that one time.
Though the dice mechanics contain a bit of frippery, the core character modeling is blessedly simple. Each character has three attributes, Strength, Heart, and Wits, and each of these attributes has six skills attached, for a total of 18. To keep the accounting down yet further, the target numbers for the game are mostly intended to be constant, calculated by subtracting the relevant attribute score from 20. Though there are variations on this theme, the core is a shorthand which makes it easy enough for the Lore Master (this game’s GM terminology of choice) to pose any challenge to a given character without thinking too hard about it.
What makes The One Ring interesting does not come from the core mechanic itself, but rather from how that mechanic is implemented. The game is a combination of delineated situational mechanics with some broader thematic metacurrencies. Hope is meant to be a character’s spiritual reserve. Hope can be spent to trigger bonuses or other effects, but it can also trigger negative effects if it runs below the total of the character’s Shadow. Shadow represents negative forces drawing on the character, and does so through accumulating penalties. Hope and Shadow are genre-enforcing when viewed through what we know about the Lord of the Rings, but they’re not incredibly interesting in the scheme of things when it comes to mechanics, leading to increasing ongoing penalties but not forcing any story changes. What makes these point totals more unique is that they’re held at the same level as Endurance, which serves as the hit point proxy of the game. The theme of elevating multiple elements to importance continues through The One Ring, and is really what makes the game as effective as it is.
At the highest level, gameplay of The One Ring is broken into the Adventuring Phase and the Fellowship Phase. The Adventuring Phase is what we typically think of when we imagine a gaming session, while the Fellowship Phase represents extended downtime. And this is extended downtime, taking between a week and a season. In addition to other extended actions, the Fellowship Phase is the only time when players get to spend experience points, cementing its importance in the cadence of the game. Beyond typical Fellowship Phases there is Yule, an extra-long Fellowship Phase where the party disbands for the winter, usually to go see family. Time passing is an important theme here, and the cadence reminds me both of Wanderhome and Torchbearer, though of course The One Ring precedes those games by a number of years.
The Adventuring Phase provides mechanics at a level you’d expect for a game with three attributes and eighteen skills, but I appreciate what elements get additional attention in the form of specific mechanics. There is a combat system, because of course there is; but it’s a bit more defined than most. While it wouldn’t be too hard to run a D&D ‘combat’ in this system, the mechanics here are much more focused on battles and skirmishes with two ‘sides’. Characters choose their stance, which gives certain penalties and bonuses depending on their actions (e.g. a defensive stance makes a character tougher to hit while also making it harder for them to hit). Initiative is based on two sides seeing each other and beginning with ranged ‘vollies’ before moving in closer, though there are rules for ambushes and other asymmetrical circumstances. Still, it’s clear that this is not a dungeon crawling, monster hunting game like D&D. Also of note is the relative danger of the combat system; while Endurance is standing in for hit points and losing Endurance cannot kill you, each character can take two Wounds. The first Wound might take you out of the fight, and the second Wound definitely will.
Beyond combat, there are delineated mechanics for Journeys and Councils. The Council rules aren’t the most robust social encounter mechanics but I appreciate that they’re included nonetheless, D&D in comparison has none. Journeys are interesting, and to me are thematically tied to the Lord of the Rings when you think about the core stories being told. Journeys are traced across a hexmap of Eriador provided in the book, and characters must fill four roles along the way: Guide, Hunter, Lookout, and Scout. The Guide leads the Journey, and their rolls determine when Events occur along the way. The fact that Events are a when, not an if, keeps each Journey interesting, and grounding them to an actual map is always a good way to tie the events and locations into an ongoing story.
So I mentioned Eriador. While mechanically The One Ring’s second edition is little different from the first, the shift in location is significant, and worth mentioning. The One Ring second edition takes place in Eriador, which is a region in western Middle Earth that contains a lot of locations you probably know, like The Shire in the west and Rivendell in the east. The first edition, in contrast, took place in Rhovanion, the region probably best known for containing Erebor, or Smaug’s mountain. I understand the logic for the first edition’s location decision; Rhovanion is more of a, well, ‘adventure-ful’ region. If you’ve read any analyses of Tolkien’s settings you’ve likely come across the idea of ‘moral geography’, where north and west in Middle Earth are ‘good’ (The Shire is to the northwest) while south and east are ‘evil’ (Mordor is to the southeast). It therefore stands to reason that a region east of Eriador would have more moral ambiguity and more opportunities for adventure (it also didn’t hurt that the first edition of The One Ring was in print during the release of the three The Hobbit movies which mostly take place in Rhovanion).
That all said, Eriador is the region with more identifiable landmarks, and certainly isn’t absent of dangers itself. The reason the shift is important, though, is more due to the contents of the book. While the setting fluff section isn’t a huge part of the game (about 30 pages, or about 15%), it’s the part that explains the shift from first edition to second. While the first edition initially took place in Rhovanion, the supplement library gradually expanded the map westward. At the same time, the game saw a number of revisions after its initial release, to the point that a revised edition with errata was released three years after the first print run. The location shift is the largest indication of the overall logic of the new edition; all the things that were added later over the eight years that the first edition was out have now been put in first. While this edition encompasses that shift in focus and increased refinement, it is still by and large the same game.
The One Ring is the latest in a long line of roleplaying games based on Middle Earth, and with this new edition it has a chance to become the longest lived (that title still belongs to Iron Crown’s Middle Earth Roleplaying, in print from 1982 to 1999). What The One Ring did that its predecessors did not is really consider what sort of adventures were central in the source material, and make sure there are rules for them and make sure they feel more like Lord of the Rings than like just another role-playing game. While The One Ring is successful and deserves to be ‘the’ Lord of the Rings RPG, this second edition is just a revision. The publisher switch and subsequent Kickstarter got the game a lot of attention, and made both Sophisticated Games and Free League a fair chunk of money. Now that the game is out in the market, though, I think it’s going to chug along like any other mid-tier traditional game would.
If you’re looking for something inspired by Lord of the Rings directly, I think The One Ring is a great alternative to most fantasy games; it doesn’t feel like D&D and it hews to its source material much more closely than the countless fantasy games which have bastardized it over the years. At the same time, as expected for a game that in truth is over a decade old, the mechanical innovations contained within have already disseminated out into the RPG landscape. There’s nothing wrong with a second edition remaining loyal to the product line; arguably as far as edition changes go the incremental ones sell the best. But, as much as this edition of The One Ring is a good second edition, a good Lord of the Rings game, and a good fantasy RPG overall, its release is going to be associated with its funding, at least in the indie sphere. And from that angle, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about.
The One Ring is available at DriveThruRPG and from Free League.
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14 thoughts on “The One Ring Review”
My crowdfunded physical book came last week and it’s one of the most beautiful roleplaying books in my collection. The art ist gorgeous, the layout is great. The rules are streamlined. Just a fine, solid product.
The review though is very good, too. The verdict is fine: It’s just an updated version of a solid game system, nothing more, nothing less. It was and is by far the best system for roleplaying in Middle-earth. But if you have the first edition, you don’t need the second.
There is yet one other reason second edition is a good idea: player access. Second edition contains many segments (Rivendell) and classes (Rangers of the North) that are squirreled away in 1st edition supplements that lost for over Us$100 apiece on eBay. Not to mention the separate Loremaster and Player’s guides you need just to get started in 1st ed. I appreciate the central and streamlined information in the 2nd edition core book. And like all of Free League’s work- it’s stunning.
To be fair, first edition was set in the lands between the Misty Mountains and Erebor. Rangers and Elves of Rivendell would be rare. I had all the supplements apart frommthe players guides it wasn’t necessary. The biggest issue with first edition was a total lack of index. Of the two I prefer the illustrations of the first. I haven’t played the second for long enough to decided on which I prefer. As Stephen said in class earlier answer if you have the first you don’t need the second. They are too close and as a GM I keep getting them mixed up.
A great write up,of the rules, still the best ever depiction of Middle Earth in RPG terms.