A few weeks ago, the fine folks at Free League very kindly sent me a review copy of The One Ring: the core rulebook, the DM screen, and the starter set. Regular readers will know that I rarely review things I haven’t paid for, so I have tried not to let this influence me too much. That said, I have been interested in this for a while, so I was already an eager customer.
If you don’t know Free League, they’re based in Sweden, and they’re pretty great. They’re best known for Tales from the Loop, Mörk Börg, Vaesen, and Forbidden Lands, which I reviewed here. They have just published Death in Space, a ‘grimy blue-collar future of a dying universe’ inspired by films like Prospect, Outland, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Later this year they will be launching a Kickstarter for the much anticipated Blade Runner RPG. Definitely a company to watch.
Free League are highly regarded for their outstanding production values, and The One Ring is no exception. Honestly, this stuff is pretty. The art is perfect: sepia sketches interspersed with big, evocative, splashes every few pages. The showpiece art is filled with light and shade, beautiful scenery, and free-flowing brushwork. It’s practically a coffee table book. An RPG shouldn’t look this good.
I’m going to focus on the Starter Set in this review since I haven’t played with the core rulebook yet. That said, it’s worth saying that the core rulebook is very much a full ruleset. You’ve got character creation, detailed lore, and rules not just for combat but also exploration and ‘audiences’ (a more codified form of social interaction). If you’re familiar with Adventures in Middle Earth (the 5th edition conversion that I reviewed in 2020), much of this will feel familiar to you. There is a palpable respect for Tolkien’s work throughout. If the trailer for the new Amazon series concerned you, rest assured: this game won’t.
So, how does it play? It’s an elegant system with a lot of baked-in flavour. Every dice roll involves a ‘feat die’, which is a special d12, and a number of ‘success’ die, which is a special d6. It’s possible to roll without success dice – kind of like rolling without proficiency in D&D – but the feat die is a constant, like the d20. Feat dice have the potential to roll a Gandalf rune (actually a stylized Anglo-Saxon Fe rune, ᚠ) and an Eye of Sauron. A Gandalf rune is an auto-success, whereas an Eye of Sauron counts as a zero. The success dice are marked with a stylized ‘T’ shape (the letter lambë in Elvish) on every ‘6’, and if you succeed on a roll overall, these 6s could mean a great or extraordinary success.
Here’s something that’s particularly nice: the Target Numbers (TNs) for every dice roll are on the character sheet! I won’t go into the exact details of how these numbers are calculated (not least because you don’t need to know if you’re playing the Starter Set), but suffice to say, if you want to try ‘Stealth’ or ‘Healing’ or ‘Lore’, then the Target Number is right in front of you. Incidentally, the skills have really evocative names like ‘Riddle’ and ‘Courtesy’, and there is very much a sense of different tools for a range of situations, not just combat. (Skills are one of my biggest gripes in 5th edition D&D: I’ve offered an alternative skill list here.)
I’m not going to exhaust the rest of the rulebook here, so let’s turn to the Starter Set for a closer look. You get a lot of stuff: six pre-generated characters (plus a couple of bonus characters revealed later in the adventures), a two-sided map of the Shire and Eriador, a set of dice, gear cards, some adventures, and a card that summarizes the combat and travel systems. I was particularly grateful for the dice, and one of my only gripes with the Forbidden Lands box set was that you are required to buy these separately.
The Starter Set is focused entirely on the Shire, and there’s clearly a lot of love for this pastoral paradise. If you play through all of the adventures, you will cover pretty much every inch of the place, including iconic locations from the books like Hobbiton, Farmer Maggot’s farm, Buckleberry Ferry, and the Old Forest. But it’s not all stupid, fat hobbits (although they do appear, often): you can also expect to encounter dwarves, orcs, fireworks, and maybe even a few famous NPCs.
The adventures in the Starter Set gave us enough material for two full-length sessions, and it was a fun deviation from our regular D&D game. So, was there anything that didn’t quite work?
Only a couple of things stood out for me. One was the adventures themselves. It’s fair to say that they are a bit railroady, which is par for the course with starter sets, with lots of boxed text and some occasional ‘gating’. For example, the first adventure features a river crossing that the party is more or less expected to succeed in: if they fail, I’m not sure what is meant to happen next.
Another was difficulty. This didn’t feel easy, and the TNs are rather high. For example, to succeed on a Persuade roll, Drogo Baggins needs to roll a combined score of 13 on 2d6 and 1d12. The odds are reasonable, but there’s still a 50/50 chance that he won’t make it – and that’s one of his better skills. On an untrained skill like Athletics (TN 15), his chance of succeeding is one in twelve – roughly equivalent to the chance of critting in D&D. Perhaps I’m missing something in the rules, but it feels a little hopeless sometimes.
The full rules have a surprising amount of depth to them, and the Starter Set experience is definitely a simplified one. The full game can become much more granular if you want it to be, with rules for hope, endurance, valour, wisdom, combat stances . . . most of which were unnecessary for a two-shot in the Shire, so I never needed them. But they look fun, for sure.
If you are looking at this product and wondering ‘could I run a whole campaign with this,’ the answer is absolutely yes. I highly recommend it. Given the success of their Kickstarter, I am sure Free League will keeping putting out material for The One Ring, and I will be watching with keen interest when they do.
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