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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Review

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The works of J.R.R. Tolkien heavily impacted the development of Dungeons & Dragons and its portrayal of elves, dwarves, rangers and rogues — along with the general idea of a small group of disparate heroes banding together to save the world. Free League Publishing’s The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying (see it on Amazon) builds on those connections while modifying the rules of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition in clever ways that can be used to make an adventure that really feels like a tale from the iconic fantasy series.

The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying converts the rules of The One Ring tabletop roleplaying game to 5E, a smart choice given how difficult it can be to convince D&D players to learn a new system. While the book is firmly anchored in the world of Middle-earth, packed with quotes from Tolkien’s series along with sketches of its most famous places and characters, the rules are robust and novel enough that the book is worth a purchase for any game master interested in running a low-magic game that places a greater emphasis on negotiation and exploration.

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Set between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of The Ring, The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying is primarily focused on scrappy adventurers fighting against the encroaching power of the Shadow in the region of Eriador, which includes the Shire, Rivendell and Bree. While the cultures of elves, dwarves and men will feel familiar to D&D players — albeit given more Middle-earth specific flavor — D&D classes have been replaced with heroic callings like Messenger, which combines a bit of Rogue and Bard, and Champion, which has aspects of Fighter and Barbarian.

Characters are capped at 10 levels to keep the power scale even more grounded, and none of the callings provide flashy magic. Wizards in Lord of the Rings are legendary figures, not a staple for every party. The closest players will come is a Scholar, who has a bit of healing and a stronger affinity for crafts, the game’s name for novel abilities like talking to animals or reading runes. But crafts can also involve forging armor or singing songs to bolster your allies, making them just as viable an option for any character. They can be chosen as you level up in lieu of a virtue, The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying game’s version of a feat. The classes feel well balanced, particularly when compared to the divides between the bounty of choices D&D spellcasters accumulate compared to the often rote actions of martial characters.

Each calling also has a shadow path, representing the way a character may succumb to darkness. Rather than using D&D’s simplistic alignment system, The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying encourages players to play flawed heroes like Boromir and Frodo who try to do the right thing but may succumb to doubt or greed. Committing misdeeds like stealing or lying, or even just encountering the dread creatures loyal to Sauron or a trove of treasure that belonged to a wicked dragon, can imbue a player with shadow points. The shadow path gives them both mechanical penalties and flaws to roleplay. A champion may become brutally violent and a captain overconfident in their own abilities. Gain enough shadow points and you may lash out at your own allies in a burst of madness or even become unplayable as your character is too burdened by the darkness they’ve seen to go on.

Luckily the influence of the shadow can be cleansed by being reminded of all that is good in the world through the game’s fellowship phase. Meant to be a break in the faster pace of adventuring, fellowship takes some of the activities of D&D’s downtime system, like crafting or gathering rumors, but adds on abilities that are particularly important to the world of Tolkien like writing songs or training an heir. These all have mechanical effects on the game. Writing your biography like Bilbo is a way to show your character growth and retrain abilities, while an heir will eventually receive some of your characters XP and gear — allowing for the telling of tales that fit well with Tolkien’s multigenerational saga. Fellowship is also a time for players to gain information and other boons from their patron, which can be any powerful denizen of Middle-earth from Elrond to Gandalf.

Lord of the Rings is filled with epic battles, but just as important are the long rides across hostile terrain or negotiations with potential powerful allies. The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying uses the combat rules from 5E, but adds new subsystems for councils and journeys to further emphasize those aspects of gameplay. Councils are formal social scenes where the party sets goals ahead of time and can earn XP and other rewards depending on how convincingly they can make their case through skill checks. It’s a good opportunity for players who like talking to NPCs or making motivating speeches to shine by serving as the party’s spokesperson.

The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying uses the combat rules from 5E, but adds new subsystems for councils and journeys to further emphasize those aspects of gameplay.


Journeys use a system similar to the ones found in Level Up Advanced 5th Edition and Pathfinder. The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying further emphasizes the challenges of navigating wild territories by dividing D&D’s survival skill into hunting, explore and travel, and characters use their abilities to take on different roles in an expedition such as scout or hunter. The game master rolls on an encounter table, with the outcome shaped by how dangerous the territory is and the travel-focused abilities characters use. The journey may be marred with misfortune like stumbling upon the brutal handiwork of orcs or players may discover a lost wonder of Middle-earth and gain inspiration — the core D&D resources that allows players to roll with advantage and take the best result found on two d20s.

The mechanics work well with the setting, where most characters have rarely ventured far from the safety of their homes and are often eager to be rid of the dangers of the road and find the comforts of a warm inn. Adding to the feel of heroes being pushed to their limits, short rests take eight hours rather than an hour and long rests can only be done somewhere safe. On the other hand, there are more mechanics that give players advantage and keep them from dying randomly due to a bit of bad luck, contributing to the themes of destiny found in Tolkien’s work.

Along with the core rulebook, Free League has also released Shire Adventures, which is meant as a sort of introduction to the system especially suited to new or younger D&D players. The Loremaster’s Screen comes with a small booklet on Rivendell, which is a great place for the players to spend a fellowship phase and also includes new character options for elves. The game clearly has plenty of room to grow through new subcultures and exploration encounters and Free League has already announced the release of the Ruins of Eriador setting book and Tales From Eriador collection of adventures that will make The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying even easier to pick up and run.

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Verdict

The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying modified the rules of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition for a highly accessible game that nails the feel of adventuring in Middle-earth. Avid Tolkien fans who want to experience a world where music is as powerful as magic and the journey is really as important to a tale as the destination will find mechanics to make that possible, but any dungeon master looking to run a different type of fantasy epic will find clever ideas that can be easily integrated into games with different settings.

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