Tolkien’s work can be challenging to adapt, regardless of the format. Whether it’s radio, TV, games, or movies, the complex mythology is almost impossible to squeeze down into any format more short-form than novels. That said, tabletop games might be the only exception to that rule. After all, you’re basically adapting one book into another book, and with the constant influx of adventure books and new source material, you’ll find much more space to adapt the complex, interweaving threads of Tolkien’s universe. So, after a decade, does The One Ring RPG Second Edition fair? There’s only one way to find out.
The One Ring RPG Second Edition is the latest version of Francisco Nepilito, and Marco Maggi’s tabletop take on Tolkien’s epic stories and was published, this time by Free League Publishing. While the original version from 2011 was well received, it also has a reputation for being filled with some overly complex mechanics that kind of get in the way of fully immersing yourself in the story you’re supposed to be crafting. Luckily, the second edition does away with a lot of the fluff, making for a more streamlined approach that makes the game much more playable and enjoyable.
The One Ring RPG Second Edition - Starting With The Book
As with any RPG you might happen to pick up, the best place to start with The One Ring RPG Second Edition is with the physical (or digital) book itself. It’s a great sign on first opening up the book that it starts by setting the scene with a letter from Gandalf, presumably to the reader. It uses in-universe flavor to set out a vague idea of the game’s setting and time period, all without overloading you with lore like some RPGs we could mention *Cough*VTM 5th Edition*cough*. There’s also a decent amount of effort put into the presentation, with fantastic art of scenes that might play out in your games, as well as a lot of set dressing framing the paragraphs and text boxes.
The order in which rules are presented also makes more sense this time. You’re presented with a basic overview of the game and then immediately given the rules that govern when you should roll, and how to figure out which dice you need to use. Previously, the explaining of the dice and how they worked felt a little jumbled and could be a bit tricky for newer RPG players who haven’t moved out of the DND safety blanket just yet. Overall, this edition of the rules feels like topics flow much more easily into each other, guiding you through the basics of telling a story and how and when to roll in a way that feels intuitive and natural.
The One Ring RPG Second Edition - Actually Playing the Game
So, The One Ring RPG Second Edition does a good job of conveying the rules and mechanics, but how do those rules and mechanics actually work? On the whole, pretty well. Gameplay is split into two different phases, the Adventure Phase and the Fellowship Phase, though these phases are liable to last a fair bit longer than they do in board games. Adventure Phases are sometimes several sessions long and deal with the moment-to-moment scenes of an adventure. On the other hand, the Fellowship phases can be quite short and mainly deal with the players recovering and dealing with the consequences of their previous adventures.
Part of the reason for this structure is that The One Ring focuses primarily on storytelling over anything else. If you’re used to more traditional RPGs where dice rolls were used to decide absolutely everything, then you might have a bit of an adjustment period here. Dice are used much more rarely here, with most of the direction of the story being decided as a collaborative effort between the GM and the players. There are even moments in the rules where you’re explicitly told that many actions won’t require you to roll, shifting the focus more into immersing yourself in the world that you’re creating.
There’s also the added benefit of certain overly-complex rules being stripped out, such as the way that Journeying works. Previously, you’d basically require complex formulas to totally track everything, from your party’s carry weight to the conditions of the regions that you’re traveling through. That’s all been scaled way back, with a special secondary character sheet to track the boring stuff and allow players to focus on telling a story and enjoying the game.
The Time Period and Setting of The One Ring RPG Second Edition
It makes a lot of sense to focus more on storytelling, considering the works that give this RPG its setting and tone are some of the most famous and well-constructed stories in the world. That said, if the game were to focus on all of Tolkien's work, hell,even just The Lord of the Rings, then it would become intimidating and unwieldy. The designers have avoided that by choosing the specific period of around 80 years between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and limiting characters, in the core rule at least, to only the folk of the Eriador region of Middle-Earth.
On one hand, having the time restricted to this specific time period is a bit boring. Tolkien’s canon is vast and exciting, and it would have been fun to have some guidelines on setting games in other time periods. That said, it's up to any given group to decide how closely they want to stick to that rule. Besides, when it comes to character limitation, it makes sense to prevent people from becoming Maiar or Wizards since having players running about blasting fireballs like it DnD isn’t the point of the game. The One Ring RPG Second Edition is trying to create ground rules to run games that feel like they’d make sense in Tolkien’s universe, and they are very faithful to that tone.
The One Ring RPG Second Edition - Character Creation
One of the most important points for any game to get right is character creation. It’s often the biggest hurdle for first-time players of a game to actually create their own characters. Condensing an entire game’s worth of mechanics and statistics into a single sheet is tough and gives newbies a lot to deal with at once. Some games try to get around this by giving players pre-generated characters to start out with, but that’s a poor solution at best since new players are way less likely to get drawn into the world in the same way that they would with a self-made character.
Much in the same way that mechanics are more story-focused, character creation is more about creating a realistic and sufficiently Tolkien-esque character than it is about rolling up and deciding a bunch of stats. For instance, rather than how your fellowship was founded being decided on the fly or at random, all players work together to decide the story that bought them together. When it does boil down to mechanics, the system is incredibly simple, with your three attributes, Strength, Heart, and Wits, governing a section of different skills or statistics. It’s much easier to keep track of, and on the sheet, makes finding information much simpler than on overly complex sheets.
Rather than race being the primary choice faced by most RPG players, the One Ring RPG takes it in another direction, using Culture instead. You get a decent chunk of cultures to choose from, representing most of the different free peoples: elves, hobbits, men, dwarves, rangers, and bardings. Of course, in practice, these cultures function exactly like a race, and it will take a pretty forgiving GM to allow a hobbit of the shire to have been bought up by rangers or something similar. It’s a pretty similar story with Callings, which is just another name for classes, but both of these changes do add a touch of flavor to proceedings.
The One Ring RPG Second Edition - Final Word
The One Ring RPG Second Edition had a lot to live up to, both thanks to the source material and the highly successful and beloved first edition that came much before it. In both cases, it manages to stick a graceful landing. It’s now considerably more accessible than ever before, and you won’t have to make the world’s most complex spreadsheet to keep an eye on how much lembas bread the hobbits have nicked while trying to make it across the misty mountains in one piece.
Should I Buy The One Ring RPG Second Edition?
If you’re a Tolkien fan, no matter what level, you will love this game and should definitely buy it. If you want a game were you get to roll a bunch of dice, then this won’t necessarily be for you. This edition of the game is more immersive and easier to pick up than ever before, so if you’ve been waiting for the barrier to entry to be lowered, then it’s your lucky day.
The copy of The One Ring RPG Second Edition used in the creation of this review was provided by Free League Publishing.