Dungeons & Dragons has offered players a chance to get their medieval fantasy stories on for years but there’s always been a desire to play in Middle-Earth and let folks show off how much lore they’ve absorbed from Tolkien. There have been several official RPGs over the years with The One Ring performing well in the eyes of many fans of the films and the books. Free League Publishing acquired the license, held a blockbuster Kickstarter last year for a new edition, and sent me review copies of the material that’s due to be released early this year.
Starter sets are tricky because they need to be accessible enough to get people unwilling to buy a new RPG to try out the set but they also need to have some utility for folks beyond their initial adventures. The One Ring Starter Set aims to please both of these desires by focusing on a popular element of Middle-Earth: The Shire. Both Frodo and Bilbo Baggins start their adventures in the cozy confines of The Shire, so it makes sense for players to do so too. The tales being told with the boxed set aren’t the world shaking epics of Return of the King, but more about Hobbits stumbling into adventure, getting into trouble and out of it again. Writers James Spahn and Francesco Nepitello also make an argument that this boxed set is a good choice for use with kids wanting to get into RPGs. The fairy tale feel of The Shire still offers plenty of good stories without the darker elements of the world like ringwraiths or Sauron.
The production values of the boxed set are top notch as one would expect from a Free League game. The maps of The Shire and Eriador are suitable for framing. They include one of my favorite details from the excellent Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set where you can set up the box as a GM screen thanks to important rules printed on the back lit. They also make the curious choice to include a set of cards that cover rules not included in the starter set. Perhaps they wanted to future proof the box a bit more or maybe they figured selling these cards on their own wouldn’t work from a profitability standpoint. The three books included are also in an odd order, with the adventures first, the rules second and The Shire book rightfully last. It’s a nitpicky detail to be sure, but many other starter sets have a very deliberate packing order to help players walk through their experience.
The rules are fairly simple with a central d12 called the Feat die assisted by d6 skill dice looking to hit a target number. The basic target number comes from character attributes with difficulty adjusted by raising or lowering the d6 pool or by using an advantage/disadvantage mechanic with the feat die. This pool generates additional success when the dice top out which can be spent on various effects like bypassing armor or learning more information. As characters get tired from travelling and take damage from fights, their rolls become less effective until they rest. A character who loses too much endurance carrying a lot of equipment, for example, becomes weary and can’t add low numbers to their dice rolls. The One Ring focuses on the toll the journey takes on the heroes which does a lot to differentiate itself from other RPGs where combat is the main focus.
The adventure book contains five stories that help players learn the rules bit by bit. The game being set after The Hobbit but before The Fellowship of the Ring allows the pre-generated characters to connect to the heroes of the main stories in unusual ways. Players can even unlock “canon” characters to play in later adventures of the series. The stories feel like they could be played in an evening or two. They center around Bilbo Baggins needing help with information to include in The Red Book of Westmarch and enlisting friends to serve that purpose. The adventures are solid, though I would like to see more guidance for moving the story forward should the players fail the rolls they need to make while learning the system.
The Shire book makes the strongest argument for purchase by players who have already bought the core rules. The book includes a breakdown of different parts of the area while including various rumor tables and charts with inspirational encounter suggestions. This is useful for GMs who want to extend their adventures in The Shire while also proving useful to groups with the full book who may want to return there for a while. These tables are a source for tables who want some intrusions of darkness into The Shire with the results of rolling Sauron’s Eye on the Feat dice showing that a darkness is coming outside the Hobbit world’s borders.
The One Ring Starter Set seems poised for the best success with fans of the films or the books. It also seems like a good choice for people who have tried Dungeons & Dragons but want something that’s a little more narrative while still full of fantasy flavor. Setting the game in between the main stories reminds me of the classic WEG Star Wars RPG: there’s a lot of stuff that’s name checked for players to explore but the world hasn’t been uprooted by the main story yet. Tolkien told a lot of these side stories in his own writings and this box gives players a chance to fill in even more gaps of Middle-Earth’s history.