Roleplaying in Middle-earth has a long history, both in homebrew mods and in licensed games. The most recent official entry is The One Ring, by Cubicle 7. These are the same people who’ve brought us the Doctor Who and Laundry Files roleplaying games, so they certainly have experience. The book itself is very polished, with lots of quotes from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, plus some gorgeous art. But how do the rules stack up in the highly competitive field of high-fantasy roleplaying? Short version, they do alright, but they’re nothing to write home about. What’s that, you wanted the long version? Well…
The Core Mechanics Are Functional, but Overly Complex
The first thing to look at in any roleplaying game is its core-die mechanic. If that doesn’t work, no other rules matter. Fortunately, The One Ring’s die mechanic works well enough. Characters roll a single d12, plus a number of d6s equal to the skill or other ability they are using, then add the results together. This avoids the unfavorable curve of a single d20,* and the game rolls few enough dice that the math isn’t too cumbersome.
Unfortunately, the mechanic is over engineered. The d12 sticks out, and it’s not clear why the game needed more than one die type. To make matters worse, if the d12 comes up 12, the roll is automatically successful. That means all characters have a 1/12 chance of succeeding at any task, no matter how difficult it is. That dynamic makes it harder for GMs* to properly set difficulties. If everyone in a party tries to kill the dragon Smaug by throwing rocks at him, chances are fairly good one of them will roll a 12 and succeed.
The d6s are also overly complicated. For one thing, they’re called “success dice,” which makes you think they need to come up over a certain amount to count as a success when they are actually added together. If The One Ring’s designers were unaware of what success usually means in RPG terminology, they needed to do more research. The d6s’ main mechanical issue is that they determine a roll’s degree of success based on how many 6s come up, which is an unintuitive way to do it. Why not just go by how much the roll exceeded its base difficulty if degrees of success matter?
A bright spot in The One Ring’s core mechanic is its meta currency. Called Hope, this is spent for bonuses to dice rolls and recharged by drawing on the friendship of one’s fellows. What’s more, characters low on Hope are far more vulnerable to the Shadow’s influence. It’s a simple system, but it matches the themes of Tolkien’s world.
Combat Functions Well
In any Middle-earth game, there’s bound to be swords drawn and arrows knocked, so it’s a relief that The One Ring’s combat systems is well up to par. The system is straightforward enough to easily learn and complex enough to present interesting choices to the players.
Players decide where their characters stand in the line of battle, and that choice influences what opportunities they will have in combat. A knight in heavy steel armor might stand further forward, counting on their armor to protect them while a Hobbit archer would take potshots from a safer position. The different weapons, armor, and shields all have their pros and cons, so PCs are not incentivized to go for the most powerful.
The One Ring’s health system is also quite good. In short, it draws a line between abstract Endurance and actual wounds. Most of the time when a character is hit, they will simply lose a few points of Endurance, representing a blow that slid off their armor and caused pain but no lasting damage. Actual wounds happen only when armor is pierced and are much more serious. Many systems pay lip service to the idea that their hit points are abstract rather than literal, but The One Ring actually pulls it off.
The recovery system matches what is shown in the novels. That is, recovery is slow and arduous. Stopping to rest after a battle is highly incentivized, and if a character is wounded without access to medical care, they may not recover at all. It brings home how costly fighting can be without being quite so punishing as a system like Burning Wheel.
The one major flaw with The One Ring’s combat system is that it assumes PCs will always be fighting NPC enemies. For example, if a character takes the Forward stance, their base difficulty to hit enemies and be hit themselves is six. That works fine, unless the enemy is another PC who takes the Defensive stance, which sets their base difficulty to 12. There are no rules for how these PC stances interact. Having a means to engage in PVP isn’t strictly necessary, but it would have been nice.
The Inventory Rules Work, but Can Be Abused
Characters in The One Ring can’t just carry everything they want. The more they carry, the more Fatigue they gain. Most traveling gear is represented as one item and then added together with armor, weapons, treasure, and anything else a character might have to carry. This is good, as no one wants to track every piece of lembas bread.*
Characters who carry too much get tired, taking some serious penalties on their rolls. That works, but it has one major flaw. There’s only one penalty for carrying too much and no upper limit beyond it. That means once a character is tired, they can carry as much as they like without further penalty. Apparently they aren’t getting any more tired, so they might as well pile on all the extra gear, and Bill the pony too.
Another issue is that the rules for treasure automatically equate value with encumbrance. The more valuable a piece of treasure, the more room it uses up in a PC’s inventory. That’s not a terrible guideline, but it means that with the rules as written, something like the Arkenstone can’t exist. Or if it did, it would take several adventurers to carry it. That’s a pretty obvious blind spot for a game based on Tolkien’s work.
The inventory isn’t difficult to house rule into submission. Adding further penalties for carrying gear beyond a character’s fatigue limit and allowing for treasure that’s valuable without being heavy will do the trick. But it’s annoying to need house rules for such a basic part of the system.
The Journey Mechanics Are Lacking
Any game based off Tolkien’s work needs rules for making a long journey. The One Ring does have such rules, but they are not up to snuff. First, they require GMs to describe a journey in terms of actual miles traveled. Exact distances are rarely important, or even interesting, in narrative journeys. Instead, they feel like pointless detail. Much better to abstract the distances.
To calculate the distance, the game expects you to use its own map, overlaid with a hex grid, no matter if that map matches your idea of what Middle-earth looks like. To make matters worse, the game’s map is incomplete. It stops at the Shire on one side and Barding lands on the other. Middle-earth has a lot more than just that! Normally, a limited map wouldn’t be a big deal; you could just go online and find a better one. But a map you get online won’t have the hex grid, and figuring out exactly how many miles a journey is will get a lot harder.
Things get better once you get past the distance calculations. Each PC has an assigned role for the journey: hunter, scout, guide, etc. Each role has a specific skill associated with it. That’s a good idea and encourages skill diversification. Unfortunately, those roles are unlikely to matter. The only time they’re relevant is when someone gets an unlucky dice roll, causing a problem that must be solved.
What’s even stranger, if I read the rules correctly, is that not having someone in a particular role means that problems for that role can’t effect the party. For example, if the party doesn’t have enough characters to assign someone as a scout, and the random dice rolls say that the scout must deal with a problem, nothing happens.
Considering how vital journeys are to Tolkien’s stories, a more robust system would have served the game well. As it is, there’s little to simulate Sam and Frodo running low on food as they approach Mount Doom or the Fellowship battling snow and hail as they approach the Mines of Moria. As the GM, you’re free to add your own challenges to a journey, but you could already do that without a chapter of extra rules.
The Shadow Corruption Rules Are Excellent
The corruption of heroes is nearly as important in Tolkien’s work as walking. Fortunately, here The One Ring delivers in spades. Evil spades, touched by ancient darkness. In The One Ring, PCs gain Shadow points as terrible things happen to and around them. These points represent a mixture of magical corruption and mental trauma. PCs can get them by picking up a corrupted blade, witnessing a massacre, or hiding treasure from their friends.
The rules encourage GMs to bombard their PCs with tragedy and temptation. This is good for any story, but it fits especially well with Tolkien. As the characters witness the twilight of the Elves and Dwarves, will they succumb to the darkness within themselves?
Once the players gain enough Shadow points, they change. They gain new traits to illustrate their fall, traits like spiteful, deceitful, or tyrannical. If a character falls too far, they became an agent of shadow like the terrible Nazgul.
Even more in theme, PCs become more vulnerable to the Shadow as they exhaust their supply of Hope. A brutal battle or exhausting climb leaves one unprepared to resist the hidden whispers. Of course, Hobbits are the most resistant to Shadow, but even they can fall if they are not vigilant.
The Fellowship Rules Are Skippable
After a long season of adventuring, the PCs need a break. They might go back to their farm and see the kids or drink deeply as guests at a Dwarven hall. For this, The One Ring has a system called the Fellowship phase. It’s very reminiscent of the Winter session from Mouse Guard and Torchbearer. Unfortunately, while the Winter session gives players time to reflect on who their character have become over the year, the Fellowship phase is only a collection of miscellaneous actions, most of which can be skipped without any loss.
The Fellowship phase is supposed to give PCs somewhere to spend their treasure. Since The One Ring’s gear system is very limited, the only way to benefit from loot is to increase one’s Standing. This measures how much influence a character has, and it requires treasure to maintain and advance. However, most Standing gains represent some important position within a government or royal court. So, PCs can spend a bunch of treasure to get a job that they’ll then immediately have to leave in order to go adventuring.
Another action PCs can take in the Fellowship phase is to open up a new sanctuary. The PCs travel to some town or enclave they’ve previously visited, and they engage in some diplomacy. Afterwards, the party may stop at the sanctuary for rest during an adventure. However, most of Middle-earth doesn’t seem like such a hostile place that characters need to make a special effort to stop in a town. Even if they did, that seems like something most efficiently done while visiting said town, not after returning home to rest.
Players are also expected to spend experience points in the Fellowship phase, but it’s not clear why they need a special phase for that. The only really important thing a character does in the Fellowship phase is roll to reduce their Shadow points after spending time relaxing in good company. That’s a cool mechanic, but it’s the only part of an entire chapter of rules that can’t be easily left aside.
Character Creation Is Simple, but Restrictive
Character creation is the real sticking point of The One Ring. On the one hand, it doesn’t take very long. After choosing which fantasy race you’re a part of, you just need to copy down some skill listings, choose some weapons, and pick a random advantage or two. It’s fast, which is a significant benefit.
On the other hand, it’s also very limiting. First, you can only play characters from those groups that were present in The Hobbit: the Elves of Mirkwood, Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, Humans of Dale, etc. No one from Gondor or Rohan for you! While there are expansion books that include other cultures, it’s pretty disingenuous to call the game “The One Ring” and then not let players make characters from the most famous of Tolkien’s stories.
Beyond character origin, the skill packages are also extremely restrictive. You can’t play an Elf who doesn’t start with three ranks of the Lore skill,* for example. I don’t remember Legolas being particularly full of lore in the books or movies. It’s very difficult to make a Hobbit with good outdoor skills or a Dwarf who’s well versed in academic studies.
If these restrictions served a purpose, I’d be more understanding, but they don’t seem to. Certainly, they don’t serve to recreate the dynamics from the Lord of the Rings. It’s impossible to create a character like Frodo, for example, because all characters start off with a good deal of weapon skills, even Hobbits. Neither do they create a functional setting the way Burning Wheel’s lifepaths do, because they imply that everyone from a specific culture is the same.
The One Ring seems far more interested in presenting Middle-earth as an adventure sandbox than recreating the exact feeling of Tolkien’s books, so it’s head scratching why the character creation system is so restrictive. Because Middle-earth is so well known, many players will immediately have ideas for what characters they’d like to play, only to find them dashed on The One Ring’s rules. The game would have been much better served by providing more flexibility.
Despite its problems, The One Ring isn’t a bad system. If you can handle the character creation, it’ll function well enough to adventure in the deep forests and high mountains of Middle-earth. At the same time, The One Ring isn’t a great system either, even for roleplaying in Tolkien’s world. If you don’t have the cash to pick up a new game, systems like Burning Wheel or Torchbearer will serve you just as well, sometimes better.