Cubicle 7’s history, as is the often the case with RPG publishers who base significant chunks of their portfolio on licensed settings, has had its share of ups and downs. They decided to not renew their licence with Chaosium, leading to the end of their Call of Cthulhu-compatible lines like The Laundry and Cthulhu Britannica and prompting them to provide partial refunds to backers of the World War Cthulhu: Cold War Kickstarter due to them being unable to complete one of the books. Then they lucked out and picked up the licence to the new Warhammer 40,000 RPG, Wrath & Glory, after Ulisses North America dropped it, which would see them put out a revised core rulebook which significantly improved the game after Ulisses’ rather muddled original rollout.
Perhaps the most dramatic twist when it comes to Cubicle 7-related IP news of late, however, has been the end of their licence for The One Ring, the Middle-Earth RPG penned by Francesco Nepitello for Sophisticated Games. In its original version, The One Ring did a masterful job of presenting a system for Middle-Earth gaming which felt true to Tolkien’s distinctive themes and atmosphere, especially compared to previous official Middle-Earth RPGs. (Whilst MERP still has its advocates, I still feel that it feels more like diet Rolemaster than it does a distinctly Tolkien-ish fantasy RPG.) It also inspired Adventures In Middle-Earth, a conversion of the material to 5E D&D which you’d have thought would be a licence to print money.
One would think that Cubicle 7 would have done whatever it took to keep the licence, especially since I know for a fact they had more products planned – I’d heard from them at Dragonmeet back in the pre-pandemic age that they’d been developing a lavish boxed set detailing Moria, and they’d also been previewing a second edition of the game. The licence would eventually make its way to Free League, publishers of recent hit games like Mutant: Year Zero, Tales From the Loop, and the Alien RPG, and after a blockbuster Kickstarter hard copies of their second edition of The One Ring have begun issuing forth.
This hasn’t been without hiccups. One of the dice used in The One Ring is the Feat Die: a D12 with 1-10 numbered, the Eye of Sauron on the 11 spot, and a G-for-Gandalf rune on the 12. You can, of course, perfectly easily just use a normal D12, of course, but dice sets were part of the Kickstarter stretch goals and of course made sense to put in the new starter set for the game. Unfortunately, the initial run of dice for 2nd edition has been misprinted – instead of being numbered 1-10, they’re numbered 2-11, with the Eye of Sauron replacing the 1, not the 11. A simple mistake easy to adjust for (simply read the 11 as 1, or get a permanent marker of the right colour and colour the die in), but it’s still an embarrassing and unfortunate error. Free League have done what they can to fix it – they’re going to offer either replacement dice or store credit – and they are revising their quality control processes to stop it happening in future. Were the other components similarly botched, or has The One Ring risen again to bring us all and in the darkness bind us?
The presentation of the core rulebook is a little different from the first edition material; rather than going for a full-colour interior, most of the interior pages have three-colour printing. There’s some gorgeous double-page colour spreads in here, but most of the art is in an endearing black-and-white line art style. This is fine by me: the art is of a good quality, it gives the sense of leafing through a tome painstakingly inscribed and illustrated by some elven scholar (or perhaps Bilbo himself), it looks lovely, but it’s an interesting shift away from the general trend in the RPG industry towards “all full-colour all the time”.
In broad terms, this is still the same essential game as first edition – enough so that you should be able to use plenty of the old 1st edition products with only minor conversion. The most significant barrier to using old material will not be the system so much as the time period: whilst the first edition of The One Ring by default started in year 2946 of the Third Age – 5 years or so after the Battle of Five Armies – whereas the second edition takes as its start year 2965, some 19 years later. As such, if you want to use old material you’ll either need to start your campaign a touch earlier in the timeline, or make suitable adaptations to the material to take the time shift into account.
The time-shift does make a certain amount of sense: in the intervening time Sauron has declared his presence openly in Mordor, the White Council has held its last meeting, and Saruman has set up shop in Isengard. Aragorn is off learning warrior’s ways by serving in the armies of Rohan and Gondor under a pseudonym, the One Ring is safely sat in Bilbo’s pocket, and Gollum has not yet fallen into the hands of Sauron and forced to disclose the hated name of Bagginses. Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday is some 46 years away, the Council of Elrond is 63 years away, and the destruction of the Ring happens a year or so after that.
This leaves ample time for player characters – multiple generations of them, if you wish! – to do their thing, but allows the campaign to start at a somewhat more perilous time for Middle-Earth than the first edition. Whilst I might prefer the first edition starting date for a group who were keen to commit to a long campaign and would appreciate a slower boil, I can see the benefit to not having to wait a significant number of sessions before Sauron declares Mordor open for business once more.
In general, the core book does a great job of presenting the game. Rules explanations have been tightened up and clarified, the layout is crisp, clear, and readable, and between improvements in the layout and more sparing use of art the average amount of information on a double-page spread has, to my eyes, been increased without any loss of legibility. (Indeed, Free League know when sometimes repeating information can be useful – so the weapon stats are reprinted in the combat section as well as the equipment section, for example.)
The system has been tidied up, clarified, and the best of the first edition supplement line‘s embellishments have been added. Some of the terminology has changed here and there, but this is mostly to either make things more Tolkien-ish (the “Slayer” career is now “Champion”, for instance), or clarify things. For instance, what used to be an “encounter” is now a “council”, to better clarify that the rules are intended to be used for truly high-stake social situations like a council of war or an audience with a king or whatever, rather than any time you meet and talk to people (a misconception not helped by using a very well-worn bit of RPG terminology in 1st edition, but there you go).
As far as system additions go, most of them come from the Adventurer’s Companion and the Rivendell supplement. Earlier versions of the patron rules came from the former, as did the “leader” career – here renamed “captain” to denote that it doesn’t necessarily imply you are the boss of the party – whilst Rivendell presented a first pass at the rules for designing magic items, and the optional system for tracking whether the eye of the Enemy has fallen on the party and what happens when it does.
Another change is the focus of the core book – whereas the core material in first edition focused on the realms east of the Misty Mountains, with Laketown pushed as an ideal starting point, second edition focuses on the places west of the Misty Mountains, with Bree or Rivendell or the Shire being likely safe havens. (Yes, Tom Bombadil is detailed – he can be your party’s patron if you like.) One suspects this may be to give them scope to write updated material for the places detailed in the early phases of the 1st edition setting (the timeline drifted forward somewhat as that particular product line went, and the western regions are generally a bit less prone to major changes than the more easterly regions).
On the whole, The One Ring‘s second edition turns the disruption of the game line’s departure from Cubicle 7 as an opportunity to provide a welcome tune-up to the system without fundamentally reinventing the wheel, learning the lessons of the game’s past decade or so and making sound decisions as to where improvement could happen and what could be left more or less as-is. It remains to be seen how extensive of a supplement line will come out in support of it, but the time skip and the evolutionary and not revolutionary approach to updating the system means that the first edition support line is still decidedly usable, but it does strike me as a significant improvement over the game’s original release.
We are arguably living in a golden age for RPG starter sets, with the ones for Call of Cthulhu, WFRP, and RuneQuest having all impressed me recently. The One Ring Starter Set is designed with a similar philosophy to the latter two – provide a condensed rules set, throw in a gazetteer describing a little corner of the setting so the set has something useful to offer even for non-beginners, and add pre-generated characters and a clutch of adventures.
The condensed rules set is reasonable enough and may make a handy quick reference for groups that move on to the full core rulebook, but perhaps throws beginners in at the deep end just a little. I can see experienced roleplayers being able to pick up the rules booklet and figure it out fairly quickly, but I don’t think it makes enough of an effort to properly ease in potential players who are entirely new to RPGs. I think in general a starter set which writes off the possibility that it might be picked up by a total novice has little business being a starter set, and things are at a sorry pass if you have a licence as major as the Middle-Earth one and you still can’t bring yourself to hope you might bring some new people into the hobby.
The provided gazetteer here is a little guide to the Shire, which is cute, but this plays into the downfall of the adventures in the set. See, these adventures are designed for an all-hobbit party, and involves the pregenerated PCs ambling about the Shire having some fairly gentle, low-stakes adventures under Bilbo’s direction. This is a cute concept, but it’s almost entirely unrepresentative of what a One Ring game actually entails, and if your starter set’s provided adventures don’t reflect the sort of thing you get up to in the full-fat game then you’ve drifted away from being a starter set for the main RPG and into being a game concept of your own.
The adventures are also a bit half-baked. There’s five of them crammed into a 32 page booklet, which means that no one individual scenario gets much in the way of depth, and they’re all very linear affairs. They also direct the use of extensive amounts of boxed text, which I usually find to be a mistake: it’s much better to provide a referee with the key bullet points and let them convey information in their own words, because most referees when reading out a prepared text just aren’t as engaging as when they are speaking freely. Frankly, the adventure booklet feels knocked out in a rush – like Free League began work on it, realised they’d made a mistake in focusing the starter set on all-hobbit parties in the Shire, but were already committed to this format because they’d promised it during the Kickstarter so had to grit their teeth and rattle through it quickly.
So if the adventures aren’t up to much, chances are it won’t be very effective as a tool for new players trying to pick up the game, but is there much to be salvaged here? I think there is. As well as the rules booklet and the rundown of the Shire, both of which can be useful in games utilising the core rulebook, the starter set gives you a handy grab-bag of accessories. As well as a set of dice (with misprints), some gear cards, and handy maps, there’s some particularly useful stance cards which provide handy cheat-sheets for combat on one side, and when you flip them over for the various tasks you can adopt when the party is in journeying mode, which I can see helping play immensely. The inside of the box lid has some useful charts printed on it too, which again are useful play aids. Really, I could see myself potentially making use of any of the components in here other than the adventures themselves.
If you want something fancier, the Kickstarter also yielded a nice three-panel referee screen (with the panels in landscape orientation, as is correct). This comes with a short booklet describing Rivendell – perhaps because the new core book takes enough from the old Rivendell supplement that the Last Homely House ended up a little orphaned and it wouldn’t make sense to fold it into any of the other forthcoming products. Nicely, the Rivendell booklet is formatted in a similar styles to the booklets in the starter set, and there’s enough dead space in that that you can slip the booklet in there to keep it safe and it’ll fit in nicely, further exacerbating my feeling that the starter set is better as an accessory collection than as a starter set.