The One Ring 2e, Part Two

I’m back today with more about The One Ring, second edition! This second half of my review gets into some of the crunch of the game, explaining how you would run The One Ring and also how its tactically-dynamic combat system works. Let’s dive in!

Adventuring and Fellowship Phases

The rhythm of this game (like the first edition and also Adventures in Middle-earth) alternates between long Adventuring Phases and shorter Fellowship Phases to show the passage of time. An Adventuring Phase is what you’d see in most RPGs: a series of scenes telling a story, though in The One Ring some of those scenes are Journey montages instead of narrative scenes. A Fellowship Phase is something less commonly seen and is a time of reflection and growth after the action has calmed down. It’s been said widely that the original The One Ring was the best adaptation of the style of storytelling that Tolkien used in his books. I don’t know if the second edition improves on that but it certainly is just as good.

So a campaign begins with characters coming together in an Adventuring Phase. Take, for example, the opening scenes (after the prologue) of The Fellowship of the Ring (movie or book). There are some scenes of social interaction around Bilbo’s 111th birthday, some tense plot exposition, setting out on the way to Bree, dealing with barrow-wights and Tom Bombadil (not in the film), arriving at the Prancing Pony and having to run, fighting wraiths on Weathertop, and eventually making it to Rivendell.

Image © Free League

In the mechanics of The One Ring, the first few scenes would be mostly narrative with a few rolls (“you botched on eavesdropping, Sam”). Once they leave Hobbiton, the rules for Journeys take over. In these, you look at a map of the area (by default the region of Eriador where the Shire, Bree, and the rest are found) and trace out your journey. The Loremaster looks at their version of the map where different hexes are marked as Border Lands (safe), Wild Lands (less safe), or Dark Lands (dangerous) as well as impassable mountains and the like. These are different categories than the first edition which had five different types of passable hexes but this simplifying makes things a little easier to use. Among party members you choose a guide, hunter, look-out, and scout based on skill sets.

When an adventuring party passes through one of these areas the Loremaster rolls a feat die (one of the special d12s) and looks at the Journey events table. In the original The One Ring the effect of these hexes was to tire out the party with Fatigue tests and if they got an Eye of Sauron (11) they would have something very bad happen. Adventures in Middle-earth made this more dynamic with specific events that could happen, some good and some bad, with a d20 roll randomizing things. The One Ring second edition splits the difference between these good ideas with a table of seven different outcomes that require one party member (based on the role they picked) to make a roll to avoid a Shadow point or make a roll to try and shorten the Journey. These aren’t full on encounter scenes like in Adventures in Middle-earth but they’re more than just the Fatigue slog of The One Ring first edition. Plus the simplifying of hexes into three categories means you can elegantly have Border lands be Favoured rolls (rolls with advantage), Wild Lands be straight rolls, and Dark Lands by Ill-Favoured (disadvantage) rolls. Excellent mechanics.

Continuing with the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring, the encounter with the barrow-wights and the business on Weathertop with Nazgul are obviously Combat scenes and we’ll be talking about that more below. However, getting to Rivendell is it’s own thing and brings in two new game terms. First, there is a Council, the famed Council of Rivendell, which is a social-heavy scene where the party meets someone important and needs to establish them as friend or foe. There are other social scenes (talking to Gandalf about the Ring, meeting Tom Bombadill, pestering Strider for second breakfast) but those are simple things that can be resolved with a single roll or just talking it out. A Council is when you meet someone in a big, formal way and the stakes are very high. Usually the Loremaster character at the center has some resistance to helping you (such as King Thranduil not liking outsiders or Denethor being and absolute jerk) and the party makes their first impressions through making a big show, being courteous and complimentary, or feeling them out. Then they make their case to ask for help, passage, freedom, etc. and depending on how rolls go you might find yourself with a new ally and gifts or locked in dungeons and needing to escape by wine barrel.

Image © Free League

After a long and hard trek through Middle-earth and often a challenging time at the end, the party will find themselves in a calmer place where they can rest and figure out what just happened. In the Lord of the Rings books and movies this happens when the hobbits reach Rivendell and are about to head south, when the Company arrives at Lothlorien and can rest, after Helm’s Deep when they return to Edoras, and after Sauron has fallen and they’re back in Gondor and celebrating. These are Fellowship Phases, montages of recuperation that can be a few days or many years long depending on your story. You choose the duration, where the phase will take place, and spend your Experience Points and Adventuring Points (mentioned last time) to update your character. You can also pursue lengthy projects or tasks as Undertakings to let you gather rumors, write a song, or study clues you have about the bigger picture. Every three Fellowship Phases (or so) is Yule which is literally and metaphorically the end of a year. In these longer Yule Fellowship Phases you get even more points to really build out your character and can take on longer Undertakings like healing scars or raising an heir.

After the Fellowship Phase (regular or Yule) you can start in on a new Adventuring Phase and head off on further adventures!

Combat

So far, The One Ring has been described as a game of broad strokes. You have Journeys where a few rolls covers days of travel, Councils where you talk to patrons and set up further relationships, and Fellowship Phase montages where you cover the recuperative ends of Journeys and the beginning of the next adventures. I’m always surprised, then, that combat in The One Ring is extremely granular.

In fact, if you’ve played miniatures battle games you might see more parallels from there than you would to a narrative game like Dungeon World or Tales of Xadia. First is the Opening Volley when all ranged attacks are made, starting with the Player Characters (unless it’s an ambush or something). After that are the Close Quarters Rounds, first the player characters’ actions and then their opponents’ actions. Among the player characters the order is determined by their Stances on the battlefield which matches (or Engages) them with one or more opponent. The Stances are Forward (right up in the action, giving you an extra Success Die on attacks but making hits against you easier too), Open (balanced, no bonus or disadvantage), Defensive (you lose a Success die on attacks, but opponents lose a die against you too), and Rearward (pulled back and hiding or at the back shootin’ arrows). Actions happen with all Forward PCs, all Open PCs, and then all Rearward PCs (ties are up to the players).

Image © Free League

I mentioned Combat Proficiencies last time and it’s worth mentioning now how they actually work. There are four proficiencies: Axes, Bows, Spears, and Swords (a little more streamlined than the first edition). Each one of these has a rating just like Skills, so you roll a Feat Die plus a Success Die for each level of rating in the proficiency (if you have nothing, just the Feat Die). You compare this to your Strength Target Number (20 minus your Strength) increased by the opponent’s Parry modifier (doubled for ranged attacks they know are coming) and you’re trying to beat that number. For attacks against a player character, you just use the PC’s static Parry stat which depends on Culture and Wits. I don’t love that there are two different things called Parry but there you have it.

A successful attack deals damage which lowers your Endurance, the same stat that can be reduced by Journeys and other factors. If it gets reduced to zero the character drops unconscious but if it’s reduced below your Load (based on your equipment) you can be upright but also gain a condition called Weary. Also, there are some special damage options for if you get an Elvish Rune (a 6 on a d6 Success Die), Piercing Blows for vicious hits by rolling a 10 or a Gandalf Rune on the Feat Die, and specialized Combat Tasks (like intimidating the enemy or protecting someone) available to characters in each Stance. I’m going to leave all of that for you to read, though, as this is a lot of text.

Image © Free League

This is a very crunchy combat system, crunchier than I would have gone for I think. But it’s a good thing I’m not writing this game because this system works. It’s got tactics and OSR-style combat rules but they are fast and easy to use. At first glance it seems like a very restrictive system but it actually is brimming with options and you just need to choose what you want. The balance between player characters and adversaries means that the focus will always be on the PCs but the risks feel very real.

Conclusion

Image © Free League

This game is very thematic and tells a particular story which it’s kind of hard to deviate from.  However, since that particular story is one of the most beloved fantasy tales of all time. The rest of this book includes adversaries (both antagonistic humans and creatures of Shadow like orcs, trolls, and wraiths). I love that this game (and the first edition) delve into the deeper parts of Tolkien lore so that fans can learn more about Middle-earth and newcomers don’t feel like they’re way behind everyone else. Maybe you’ve read the books and know the Barrow-downs and Blue Mountains but have you poke around enough to know where Angmar is or what you could find at Mount Gram? Maybe you have or maybe you played the first edition of The One Ring so those are old news but what about the fading city of Tharbad or the lost realm of Cardolan?

This world has nearly a century of writing, scholarship, and speculation to fuel your stories, and The One Ring is the best game for exploring it. On top of that, this second edition will both feel familiar to players of the previous edition and also feel new and streamlined thanks to the improvements to the rules. I’m so excited about this game and if you like Tolkien’s work or just want a classic fantasy RPG with modern design sensibilities then do yourself a favor and check out The One Ring today.

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