July 17, 2024

“‘I will give you a name,’ he said to it, ‘and I shall call you Sting.‘” THE ONE RING Starter Set (Free League Publishing, 2022)

RockyMountainNavy, 7 August 2023

Thanks to Regimental Commander Brant at the Armchair Dragoons I was recently added to the Free League Publishing Content Program. I was very happy to see a box arrive from Free League and excitedly opened it. Inside were three items: the hardcover core rulebook for The One Ring: Roleplaying in the Worlds of The Lord of the Rings (2nd Edition), The Loremaster’s Screen, and the boxed The One Ring Starter Set. Such an epic collection for an epic setting—that I actually know little about. Not to worry, for The One Ring Starter Set quickly had me on the path to discovering my own Middle Earth.

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The One Ring Bundle courtesy Free League Publishing (Photo by RMN, click to enlarge)


My fantasy-less RPG journey

I read The Hobbit. Once. Very long ago. As in decades ago. That long ago means I was very young at the time, maybe sixth or seventh grade. It didn’t resonate with me. I vaguely recall trying to read The Lord of the Rings and not making my way through it.

In those days The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings likely didn’t resonate with me because, well, I was reading so many other things. I read lots (and I mean lots) of military history books. With the arrival of the Star Wars movie I read lots (and I again mean lots) of science fiction books. As a genre, however, fantasy held little appeal to me. I was gifted a complete set of Stephan R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and read—admittedly even enjoyed—them. I read the first four books of Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality and enjoyed them immensely. Yet I had friends (Hi, Jim! Wherever you are these days…) that seemingly never were without their copy of The Hobbit whereas I had David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers in my backpack1.

In terms of roleplaying games (RPGs) for myself and many of my friends it was all Traveller[efn_notes]Now “Classic Traveller”[/efn_notes] all the time. Sure, we played other RPGs too but we generally stayed on the science fiction or military side of things (with some thrilling spy adventures thrown in). I had a few friends that played Dungeons & Dragons but that ended for them during the Satanic Panic after their parents ritualistically burned many D&D books in the fireplace.

[Looking back, the entire situation was ironic. Here we had parents literally burning books to rid us youngsters of “demonic influences” while we got together on Saturday nights to play Traveller where our favorite set-up was to find a courier, lure them to a bar/cantina or other suitably shady location, start a fight, grab the goods, and run with the planetary (or Imperial!) authorities hot on our heels. Law Level? To be ignored. Ship payments? Optional!]

Fast forward forty(ish) years and my RPG tastes have changed little. I still play Traveller though these days I favor the open license Cepheus Engine to the too-expensive, closed license Mongoose Traveller 2nd Edition. For a while there I was really big into the Cortex System (Serenity, Battlestar Galactica) and Cortex Plus (Firefly) and the RockyMountainNavy Boys really enjoy Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars roleplaying games, especially Edge of the Empire driven by the Genesys Engine. In the past several years, Free League Publishing has become a favored publisher of mine, in no small part because of Twilight: 2000 4th Edition, ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, and Blade Runner: The Roleplaying Game all driven by variations of the Free Tabletop License of the Year Zero Engine. What I don’t play is D&D or other fantasy settings.

Finding Middle Earth

With all that history behind me, before I even opened a single product of The One Ring I had a feeling of dread. As I already explained, I know nearly nothing, I mean nothing about The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings or the lore of J.R.R. Tolkien. Would I—even could I—learn enough of the setting to play a game?

As fearful as I was I could only see one logical place to start; the boxed The One Ring Starter Set. The ad copy sounded promising:

The One Ring™ Starter Set contains all you need to take your first step into Middle-earth and experience the adventures Hobbits get up to. With streamlined rules and ready made characters, it is easy to quickly sit down and actually play the game. The One Ring is set between the time Bilbo went on his journey and the events in The Lord of the Rings™, allowing you to explore the Shire by taking on the roles of those same Hobbits whose children will go on to do extraordinary things, such as Drogo Baggins, Rory Brandybuck and Esmeralda Took. Besides the Rules and The Adventures, there’s a full compendium covering the four Farthings of the Shire, all the way from Greenholm and the White Downs in the west to Buckland and the Old Forest in the east.

The One Ring Starter Set, back of the box

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The One Ring Starter Set (Photo by RMN)


As welcoming as that sounded I was still worried. How can I fit adventure between two huge books (and now movies) that everyone knows? Who is Drogo? Or Rory or Esmeralda? Where are all those places and which will make for a good adventure?

At the same time I was constantly reminding myself – this is MY game. I am usually not one to stand too firmly on canon, choosing instead to live by words found in the Designer’s Notes from FASA’s Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game in the early 1980’s that remind players that canon is not sacred. Still, since I don’t know any Tolkien canon at all, could I find my way to adventure?

…in the long run it will be the fans who decide what is and what is not STAR TREK for their campaigns. Feel free to change even basic assumptions if it suits you. Don’t be offended if we state something as “fact” that does not fit with your personal image. Simply run your campaign to suit what STAR TREK means to you. It’s your campaign, and we are by no means the final arbiters on such matters.

Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game, FASA, 1983

I quickly discovered that the contents of The One Ring Starter Set easily guided me to Middle Earth and helped me find my exciting adventures in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, something that I had missed going on nearly 50 years now.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” – Opening line from The Hobbit

Very quickly I discovered The One Ring Starter Set is truly full of comfort. As the ad copy tells us the boxed set contains:

  • A 24-page volume of Rules.
  • A 52-page volume describing The Shire.
  • A 31-page volume containing The Adventures.
  • Eight double-sided pre-generated character sheets.
  • Two large maps showing the Shire and Eriador.
  • 30 Wargear Cards that can also be used with The One Ring core rules.
  • Six double-sided Journey Role and Combat Stance Cards that can also be used with The One Ring core rules.
  • Two D12 Feat Dice.
  • Six D6 Success Dice.

As RPG starter sets go, the quality of the The One Ring Starter Set contents is top-notch. Even before reading the various booklets included in The One Ring Starter Set the graphics draw you in. Starting from the moment you open the box and discover the Loremaster’s screen in the box top lid, and a full-color map of the Shire on the box bottom, it is readily apparent Free League takes artwork seriously. Flipping though the pages of the booklets, I appreciated the page format with the off-cream color and stained, aged corners and edges. The artwork of persons and places looks like pencil drawings, and the maps appear hand-drawn and colored. The tone of the artwork comes off to me as “living” with just a touch of whimsical to help make it inviting.

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Don’t throw out the box! (Photo by RMN)


The One Ring Starter Set comes with eight dice: two D12 “Feat Die” and six D6 “Success Die.” The truth is any d12 or d6 dice can work in the game as long as you remember that on the d12 the 11 is the “Eye of Sauron” and the 12 is “Gandalf’s Runes.” Likewise, any d6 is usable as long as you remember the “Elvish 6.” Yet, holding the specialty dice in your hands done in the same graphical fashion as the rest of the Starter Set assists both in learning the game engine and helping immerse oneself in the theme.

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The One Ring Starter Set contents (Photo by RMN)


Even wizards have rules

Overall, I was impressed with how easy the core mechanism of The One Ring game engine was to learn; indeed, the entire booklet of The Rules is super-easy to read and digest. The One Ring Starter Set uses an abbreviated 24-page version of the rules; a far slimmer version of the 240-page core rulebook!

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Start slim (Photo by RMN)


Action Resolution. The core game mechanism of The One Ring uses a dice-pool which usually rolls one Feat Die (D12) plus a number of Success Die (D6) equal to an ability rating. The die roll is summed and compared to a Target Number; rolling equal to or higher than the Target Number is a success. The “Eye of Sauron” is an automatic failure while “Gandalf’s Runes” represent automatic success. The “Elvish 6” is an extra level of success. In The One Ring most die rolls are made by the players in the open but the Loremaster interprets the results, subject to some influence by player decisions like using Hope.

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Well written Example of Play (Photo by RMN)


Characteristics. Since the Starter Set uses pre-generated characters, the entire character generation process is not presented here meaning the The Rules focus on the game engine. That said, the important elements of a character in The One Ring—Distinctive Features, Skills, Combat Proficiencies, Endurance and Hope, Valour and Wisdom—are introduced. I admit that parts of the character sheet are not necessarily intuitive but I expect that to change as I get to the core rulebook and the character generation rules are read. That said, the pregens are usable and, as I would discover later, well constructed for the scenarios in The Adventures.

Adventuring. This section introduces the structure of a scenario and the combat rules. Combat is covered in three short pages. The One Ring Starter Set includes Combat Stance Cards which provide an easy, visual reminder of the different rules for each stance. These cards, not found in the core rulebook or Loremaster’s screen, along with the 30 Wargear Cards which avoid table look-ups mid session, will certainly become an important part of the player’s accessories at the gaming table.

[For a player like myself who is used to “deadly” combat systems in my RPGs, The One Ring Starter Set takes a “milder” approach. As the inset text box for “Serious Injuries and Death” on page 24 of The Rules says, “…adventuring in the Shire is meant to be exciting, maybe thrilling, but never life-threatening. Hobbit adventurers and their like are meant to return home with an exciting tale to tell to their many relations, not to be mourned after their demise.”]

If the Shire only had AAA…

Reading the 54-page booklet The Shire from The One Ring Starter Set took a while. Not only is it double in size as compared to the rules, it is dense with information. I also swear it is a slightly smaller font! Given I had little prior knowledge of Middle Earth I read slowly trying to take in as much as possible. I do wish the layout more clearly distinguished between “player” and “Loremaster” knowledge (I eventually figured out that most every inset is for the Loremaster).

Granted, the 54-pages of The Shire is no replacement for reading The Hobbit but it’s a darn good bootstrap into the setting. Most importantly, I felt that The Shire gave me a sense of the dangers—and adventuring opportunities—present in this time between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, I quickly became comfortable that my metagame lack of lore knowledge was not going to be a hinderance; it might actually be an advantage as I am not beholden to foreknowledge from “canon.” There are plenty of adventure seeds in The Shire booklet and more than a few tables to assist an eager Loremaster in creating a session. While some of these seeds or hooks might be foreshadowing The Lord of the Rings to me—with my lack of setting metaknowledge—they serve as inspiration and thoughtful triggers to adventure in the here and now of the Shire setting for The One Ring.

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In the Third Age… (Photo by RMN)


It Needn’t Be Epic

The third booklet in The One Ring Starter Set is The Adventures. The booklet has five adventures that are designed for use with the eight pre-generated characters, each of which has a separate character sheet. The adventures can be linked; the introduction recommends playing the first two in order and saving the fifth for last with scenarios three and four playable in any order or even not at all.

The scenarios found in The Adventures are each between four and seven pages long. The early ones mechanically were pretty much what I expected; each introduced the use of core game mechanisms that form the foundation of adventuring in the Middle Earth of The One Ring. The later scenarios were a kind of “graduation exercise” with many game mechanisms brought together into a complete adventure story.

An important lesson the scenarios in The Adventures taught me is that my adventures in Middle Earth don’t have to be epic-scale. The Shire is a small community but as small as it there are larger forces, of varying degrees of evil, stirring about. Sure, some gaming groups may want demand epic-level play in The One Ring but it need not be that way. The quote at the top of the last page of The Adventures, taken together with the full-size, colorful foldout map of Eriador, is a perfect stepping stone to the core rulebook.

He looked at maps, and wondered what lay beyond their edges: maps made in the Shire showed mostly white space beyond its borders.

The One Ring Starter Set, The Adventures, p. 32

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A map, a patron and dice…everything an adventurer needs (Photo by RMN)


As anxious as I now am to explore the core rulebook of The One Ring, the boxed Starter Set has interested me enough that I am going to take my time learning The Rules, studying The Shire, and stepping through each of The Adventures. I am also not going to rush off to read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. That’s because The One Ring Starter Set has offered up exciting adventures—for me—all by itself.


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  1. ed note: there’s a reason we get along so well!

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