The One Ring: Second Edition RPG Review

08 March 2022
Rising heroes meet rising shadows

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Capturing the spirit of Middle-earth in the confines of a tabletop RPG was never going to be an easy prospect but, though some might stumble over its densely packed rulings, Free League’s revised version of The One Ring is perhaps the best we’ve ever seen.

Much of this isn’t a simple matter of good rules and pretty art – though it has those in spades. Rather, it’s a question of feel. Every turn of the page, every roll of the die and every swing of a blade feels distinctly Tolkein-esque.

In practical terms, this means that the game is dense with lore and packed with danger. There’s heavy emphasis on journeying with new allies and seeking council with the wise. Combat is fast-paced but distinctly dangerous. Magic lingers throughout the world but its impact is subtle and slight.

The game throws its players into the leather boots, elven slippers, and bare, curly-haired feet of heroes in the land of Eriador – a stretch of Shire-adjacent wilderness stuffed with the legacy of ancient kingdoms. Over the course of a campaign, they’ll range far and wide, uncovering new wonders and battling lurking threats.

All these elements are handled by a web of rules that lean to the more complex side of middle-weight. Even the core mechanic requires two different types of custom dice, and though the maths involved in working out target numbers and bonuses is simple… it’s still maths. Things only get more involved as you delve into the various systems that handle the heavy lifting.

Combat, for example, requires you to keep track of combat proficiencies and the protection rating of your armour and pick from four possible battle stances each round. Travelling involves assigning roles at camp, tracking progress across a hex map, and naming your baggage ponies.

This all combines to make a game that requires a degree of thought and contemplation to enjoy. It flows beautifully once you get the hang of it, but there’s certainly a learning curve to overcome. Anyone expecting to leap right in and pull off heroic feats or indulge in fantastical comedy shenanigans will be disappointed.

Where the first edition of The One Ring was set in the optimistic times just after the death of the great dragon Smaug, this new version takes place a couple of decades later. It is the time just before the start of The Lord of the Rings, at the twilight of the third age. 

There is an underlying sense of melancholy running throughout the game. Evil is always rising and danger is always just around the corner. Even the heroes themselves are shot through with desperation and dread, and every calling – the closest thing the game has to traditional classes – has its own “shadow path” awaiting them if they step from the light. Champions might be called by vengeance, treasure hunters by dragon-sickness.

This uneasy feeling is supported by the rules themselves. The way that the numbers fall means that new, fresh-out-of-the-box heroes seriously struggle with checks that fall out of their wheelhouse. An elven archer who has neglected their push-ups may be physically incapable of passing an athletics check without the aid of a lucky critical or crucial Hope Points.

Still, The One Ring is still far from being a moody, old-school, don’t-name-your-character-’til-level-three affair. You are still playing as heroes after all, and rules assigning shadow points for any dark deeds should keep most parties from descending into murderous mercenary tropes.

Rather, it’s a thoughtful, measured game. It’s a game where you can’t charge into legions of foes and expect movie logic to kick in. It wants players who can find joy in planning and executing journeys. Ones where good rolls are more likely to reward you with a beautiful view of dawn dancing across a forest than a pile of magical weapons.

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Really, what this means is that – to nobody’s real surprise – The One Ring is likely to be enjoyed by the folks who enjoy The Lord of the Rings. If you’ve read The Silmarillion, you’ll love it.

If you’re still on the fence, it’s worth noting that The One Ring is a beautiful book. Some of this is thanks to the art; delivered in simple black and white sketches. The most important factor, though, is the quality of the paper and the heft of the book itself. The One Ring is one of the few RPG books that you can describe as a “tome” without the barest shred of irony. For some, this may be enough to make a purchase worthwhile all by itself.

Richard Jansen-Parkes


A staggeringly beautiful adaptation of Middle-earth

Want to read more? You can check out our interview with the team when the Second Edition was announced!


If you loved the art and style of Forbidden Lands but wanted slightly less depraved murder, The One Ring might be up your alley

Designer: Francesco Nepitello

Publisher: Free League

Pages: 237

Ages: 11+

Price: £40

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