The Second Age: Producer Emmet Byrne and Dominic McDowall lead the way as the game and its Middle-earth enter a new era
Smaug’s dragon fire is extinguished. The dust kicked up by the Battle of Five Armies has settled. The shadow in the east lies quiet – for the time being – and the One Ring that will spark the War of the Ring 60 years later remains undiscovered in the possession of Bilbo Baggins.
This was the unfamiliar Middle-earth that players found themselves in when The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild arrived on the tabletop in 2011. Set five years after The Hobbit and decades before The Lord of the Rings, the roleplaying game allowed players to explore first-hand an era of Tolkien’s world they’d never seen before and embark on their own quests alongside a fellowship of adventurers.
In the years and supplements that followed (including a revision to the core rulebook in 2014), The One Ring journeyed across Middle-earth in adventures that spanned more than three decades in the game’s setting. From its starting region of Rhovanion – the landscape travelled by Bilbo Baggins towards the end of The Hobbit, and explored in the RPG’s early books – the game ventured further afield to the likes of Rivendell, Rohan and Bree, introducing rules for dwarves, dragons, Riders of Rohan and more inhabitants of Middle-earth along the way.
“Back in 2011, we’d planned to release a series of core games, each moving the timeline forward and presenting refinements of the game system,” reveals Dominic McDowall, CEO of The One Ring publisher Cubicle 7. “To our delight, the game system didn’t need much in the way of refinement after it was out in the wild, so we ditched that plan – the last thing we’d want is to make people buy the same game more than once!”
Now, almost a decade later, its finally time for The One Ring’s gameplay and world to move on in its upcoming second edition.
“We never want to rush into new editions but now, eight years of playtesting further on, we have lots of new things we want to do with the game system in a second edition,” says McDowall.
IN THE DARKNESS BIND THEM
The One Ring’s second edition advances the RPG’s starting timeline almost 20 years, towards the coming War of the Ring, Sauron’s defeat and the end of the Third Age.
It’s now been 25 years since Smaug was defeated, and Sauron’s growing strength is beginning to set in motion the events of Lord of the Rings. With the relative peace of the first edition hardening once again into an uneasy tension, McDowall says the second edition adopts a more sombre tone in its adventures.
“The tone of the game darkens as you approach the War of the Ring, and as you move further into the realms of men the politics takes on a harder edge,” he comments. “Gondor is a prize worth fighting for, by fair means or foul, and of course the Dark Lord’s plans play on human weaknesses and desires to twist people to his bidding.”
The players are spurred to action by the steward of Gondor, forming a party that will find itself directly involved in the mounting drama that will lead to the War of the Ring. The kingdom of Men plays a major role in the first adventures for second edition, including Gondor-set campaign The Errantries of the King and a guide to the city and lands of Minas Tirith.
“Gondor is a big focus for this phase of the game, and there’s so much good stuff to dig into there,” McDowall says. “We’re taking an in-depth look at the various parts of the realm, and the internal and external conflicts besetting it.”
The second edition starter set, meanwhile, explores the region of the Misty Mountains – including an encounter between the heroes and giants.
“We’ll be revisiting some areas only loosely covered previously, and as we detail more of the setting we’ll introduce some wide-ranging adventures taking you across Middle-earth,” McDowall says.
One previously unexplored area finally seeing the light of day is the mines of Moria, in upcoming adventure The Long Dark. First announced back in 2017, the long-awaited scenario set in the dwarven realm of Khazad-dûm deep beneath the Misty Mountains has since been confirmed to be coming to the new game.
“Once we decided that the second edition of the game was necessary, we needed to move our projects in development so that they would come out afterwards, otherwise they would instantly be seen as being for the old edition,” McDowall explains. “Moria is going to be a wonderful and enormous campaign and setting, we can’t wait!”
The One Ring producer Emmet Byrne hesitates to call second edition’s gameplay ‘streamlined’ compared to first edition.
“Streamlined is probably the wrong word to use as people often think ‘streamlined’ means something has been dumbed down,” he explains. “I prefer to think of it as ironing out wrinkles. The first edition went under stringent playtesting but that is nothing compared to having thousands of people play your game and send that feedback to you.”
McDowall opts instead for ‘elegant’: “We were keen to make the game as elegant as possible, without sacrificing any of the satisfying depth. In some places we’ve reduced the number of dice rolls to resolve a specific situation, for example.”
Whatever you call it, second edition’s rules – developed by original co-designer Francesco Nepitello, who also co-created board game epic War of the Ring – have been significantly reworked to make the RPG faster and easier to play.
Players create their characters using a ‘culture’ and ‘calling’ – the equivalent of a race and class in other RPGs. There are 11 different cultures, from the high elves of Rivendell to rangers of the north, each with its own place in the world.
“A lot of the cultures are very close to those seen in first edition, with minor adjustments,” says Byrne. “There have been slight changes to some backgrounds, and some tweaks to cultural blessings to ensure every culture feels on par with the others but other than that we’ve tried to keep the cultures as close as possible to first edition to aid players converting their characters over.”
Callings define a character’s skills and speciality, but also set out their reason for adventuring. This movation is broken into a positive aspiration, which helps the character to overcome tough challenges by pursuing their goal, and a negative weakness, which makes them vulnerable to the corrupting force of Middle‑earth’s creeping darkness – even when the One Ring is nowhere in sight.
“Callings themselves have undergone somewhat of change, with your calling having a greater impact on your character,” says Byrne. “Each calling has something that drove them to become an adventure, be it glory, knowledge or the search for something lost. The darkside of this drive can lead you down a path to ruin and it is what the Shadow can use to warp and twist you. We saw some of this with Shadow Weakness in first edition, and we have expanded on it in second edition.”
One of second edition’s biggest changes is to dice rolls. When attempting a task, players are still aiming to hit a target number with a number of dice, as in first edition. What’s new is how those targets are calculated; rather than letting the DM-like loremaster choose a target as before, second edition uses a character’s attributes to set a base number, which the loremaster can then modify according to difficulty. The change makes characters’ traits feel more important, and the game faster to play overall.
“With second edition we looked at where parts of the game may have slowed down more than we
liked or created dissonance during play,” Byrne says. “Thankfully there weren’t many of these instances!”
It’s a similar case with journeys, The One Ring’s distinctive moments of travelling across the expanse of Middle-earth. Previously roll-heavy, journeys now see the loremaster roll for each three days spent travelling, resolving events based on the terrain and the result of their dice. Players might get lost, discover a shortcut or even end up in danger .
“Journeys was something we wanted to revisit,” Byrne says. “Though it worked very well, it involved a lot of dice rolls to resolve a journey.”
Another distinctly Tolkien-esque addition is councils, a reimagining of first edition’s encounters. The chance for players to engage in their own council of Elrond-like meeting with Middle-earth’s mightiest individuals, the rules have been loosened to let players chat with the everyday inhabitants of the setting using just their basic skills.
“Encounters – now councils – was another area we wanted to address,” Byrne says. “The initial goal was to provide guidelines and a framework for how social encounters would work, but in play these often ended up being used as strict rules.”
As you’d expect, there’s plenty of clashing of swords and slaying of orcs, too. Characters adopt different stances during combat to gain bonus dice for their rolls, working with their companions to use their abilities for maximum effect. Players’ limited pool of hope points can still be spent to gain roll bonuses, but the game has been refocused to make exploring and interacting just as vital and viable as swinging a sword around.
“We found that a lot of players hoarded hope until combat,” Bryne says. “We’ve tried to alleviate that to some extent and incentivise using hope elsewhere during play. Likewise, combat stances have been tweaked as at a certain level of competence most people only ever used the defensive stance.”
“Playtest feedback on new developments always needs lots of follow-on work,” adds McDowall. “Changing things like how hope works has a knock on effect in other areas, such as the balance between rewards and virtues. So you fix that, and then fix the fixes, and chase all those unintended consequences out of the game.”
While second edition features many brand new ideas and rules, it’s also been an opportunity to collect together almost a decade’s worth of additions to first edition in one place, making it easy for newcomers to get up to speed.
“There are other mechanics that, while not new to the system, are new to the core,” Bryne says. “For example, we’ve taken the rules for boats, horses, and magical treasures that were spread across three different supplements and now included these in the core. This might feel like a small change but knowing that these are in the core, and that players and loremasters definitely have access to them, means that our future adventures and supplements can make full use of them.”
THE NEXT AGE
The One Ring may be moving forward, but it’s not leaving everything behind. Characters and adventures from first edition – whether player-made or official releases – can be converted to the new game’s ruleset by adjusting target numbers and journeys.
“One of the most important things was to ensure that our previous supplements would be compatible with the new edition,” Bryne says. “Our loyal fans have been with us since the start and have amassed large collections of supplements and adventures for The One Ring. It was important to us that those previous supplements work with the second edition with minimal adjustments.”
The new edition also means more content for Adventures in Middle-earth, the Dungeons & Dragons-compatible version of the game that’s seen many of The One Ring’s adventures brought over – and which also influenced second edition’s own development.
“It means lots more content to be brought from TOR to AIME!” McDowall comments on what second edition means for Adventures in Middle-earth. “AIME takes the approach to the lore that TOR developed and adapts it for [D&D] 5E – as successful as TOR was for us, we were aware that some groups don’t want learn a new ruleset, they want to keep using the D&D they know and love. Being able to bring Middle-earth to them with the AIME 5E setting was fantastic. And then that came full circle as the development of AIME contributed ideas we took into second-edition TOR.”
Second edition may bring The One Ring closer to The Lord of the Rings but, as the game’s first edition proved, there’s no chance of Middle-earth running out of stories anytime soon. The adventure isn’t over yet.
Words by Matt Jarvis
This review originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.