Review in Summary
At Gen Con 2022, I was fortunate enough to attend Free League’s showcase panel, at which they announced several upcoming projects. Among those projects, they announced a 5e adaptation of the popular The One Ring 2nd edition. When I asked, I was told that they planned to have content parity between the One Ring and 5e versions, meaning that things like adventures would be published for both systems. To the best of my knowledge, I was the first one to share that announcement to the world, and I’ve been waiting for more details ever since. After reviewing both the core rules and the Strider Mode rules I was excited to see what else the design team would do.
Written by the same team that wrote The One Ring 2e and published by Free League Publishing, Lord of the Rings Roleplaying 5e adapts Middle Earth for play in a ruleset based on the 5e rules rather than on Free League’s Year Zero Engine. The adaptation stays close enough to the original 5e rules that you don’t need to learn many new mechanics, but it makes changes to skills and replaces races and feats to align more closely with the themes and power level of Middle Earth.
Much like One Ring, players select a heroic ancestry and calling (rather than race/class), but otherwise the game plays very similarly. Characters adventure through Middle Earth, facing orcs, spiders, trolls, and other servants of the Darkness. The character options will feel familiar for long-term 5e players, but the flexibility of the Virtues system and equipment upgrades preserves many of the customization options that One Ring enjoys without piling on extra complexity.
Where characters in 5e traditionally go up to 20th level, LotR 5e caps levels at just 10. Armor classes are typically lower than in 5e. Ability Score Increases aren’t a thing (though Virtues can improve your ability scores). Altogether, this means that characters are less powerful and feel more grounded than characters in most DnD games. Even an experienced, capable character needs to beware a crowd of low-level orcs because without +whatever armor your level 1 Champion is still vulnerable to numerous attacks from a large number of foes.
Lord of the Rings Roleplaying 5e successfully adapts many of the novel mechanics in One Ring 2e and successfully captures the feel and tone of Middle Earth without letting 5e’s typical power scale run away with things like it does in many 5e adaptations. Altogether, it’s a solid, faithful, and exciting adaptation of both Middle Earth and of One Ring from people who clearly know their stuff.
Free League Publishing was kind enough to provide PDF copies for this review.
You’ll Need Some Prior Knowledge
Lord of the Rings Roleplaying 5e assumes that you have a working knowledge of DnD 5e. It generally does not replicate the rules text from the Basic Rules or the System Reference document. You are expected to already know how basic things like ability scores, proficiency, levels, and combat work. If you have built a character for 5e and played a few games, you know plenty.
Why (another) 5e adaptation?
Once upon a time, Cubicle 7 published a 5e adaptation or Lord of the Rings called Adventures in Middle Earth. They lost the license, and AiME is now out of print and unavailable. I’m fortunate enough to have PDF copies, so it’s interesting to open those alongside Free League’s new adaptation and compare the two. Rules like the Journeys rules first appeared here and were adapted for One Ring. Cubicle 7 even published Uncharted Journeys to expand upon their own 5e journeys rules.
Holding the two side-by-side, Lord of the Rings Roleplaying 5e deviates further from 5e’s characters and makes some other mechanical adjustments which bring the 5e rules more in line with the themes and details of the settings. It’s a more ambitious adaptation than AiME.
Beyond the previous 5e adaptation, one might still ask why Free League is adapting Middle Earth to 5e yet again. One Ring 2e is a solid game running on a good adaptation of the YZE engine. But players are often reluctant to switch systems, and the ease of switching to a system with the same core mechanics dramatically reduces the barrier to entry.
More Than a Coat of Paint
Lord of the Rings Roleplaying 5e isn’t a full top-to-bottom rework of the 5e mechanics, but it makes enough changes in the right places to really feel different. The individual design choices convey a clear understanding of 5e and pain points in various bits of the system.
For example: In 5e, Dexterity is typically considered the best ability score because it impacts so many things, including attacks, AC, skills, and saving throws. LotR 5e reworks the armor table to make Dexterity less impactful. Your maximum AC in light or no armor is 15, and it improves by 1 for each tier of armor (16 medium, 17 heavy). This seems minor, but it means that proficiency in better armor is actually a benefit beyond just the ability to dump one more ability score.
Changes to skills and tools make certain things more useful, such as the Herbalist’s Kit, which provides herbal remedies that provide Advantage on saves vs. poison and disease. Things which provide some number of things based on your Proficiency Bonus double that count if you would apply double your proficiency on checks with that item, making expertise in certain tools suddenly very appealing. Survival, which is borderline useless in DnD, is so useful in LotR 5e that they split into 3 skills to prevent it from trivializing the Journey rules.
Building and advancing characters will feel very similar to 5e. Callings are functionally the same as classes and work basically the same way. Players get access to Virtues (feats) based on a general list and culture-specific lists, and your class provides several other features. Some characters get access to “Crafts” which are similar to feats but from a different pool of options. You won’t get big scaling damage things like Sneak Attack, but things like Fighting Style and Extra Attack provide meaningful numerical improvements on top of whatever bells and whistles you can get from Virtues.
Like One Ring, LotR 5e keeps the “Rewards” mechanic for improving equipment, as well as things like wondrous and famous items, all of which can improve your character’s stats in various ways without resorting to “+1 longsword”.
Many of One Ring’s systems are directly adapted with little fuss. Councils, journeys, shadow, rewards, and the magic items system all work in largely the same way as they did in One Ring but with 5e’s resolution mechanics running underneath. All of these are ready to be borrowed and used for your other 5e games.
At launch, Free League is publishing the Lord of the Rings Roleplaying 5e core rulebook, the Rivendell supplement (a short supplement detailing the High Elves of Rivendell culture and Elrond as a patron), the Loremaster’s Screen, and Shire Adventures, which contains the adventures and pregenerated character from the One Ring 2e Starter Set.
LotR 5e assumes that you have a working knowledge of the 5e rules, but does not appear to explain that anywhere. Portions of the book, such as the rules for character creation, assume that you’re going to know to perform the missing steps on your own. While this is fine for long-time 5e players, it does make the game difficult to approach for newer players.
The extremely limited roster of antagonists is going to become a problem in long-form games. When your party hits level 10 and it takes 3 trolls to provide a meaningful threat, the GM’s story options are pretty limited.
While 5e does have built-in rules for balancing encounters, it’s unclear how those rules must change to support LotR 5e’s characters. Classes provide fewer bells and whistles than DnD’s classes, so it’s almost certain that they’re less powerful than a comparable party would be in DnD.
The adaptations of the Council and Journey rules make a lot of sense, but, due to the basis in 5e, Charisma-based characters dominate councils and Wisdom-based characters dominate journeys, often leaving other characters to struggle or sit idly during those portions of the game. One Ring managed to spread these skills across the three attributes, meaning that essentially anyone could contribute to councils and journeys in a meaningful way.
Mechanics in the Yule phase have a few issues. Raising an heir and the bonus experience granted for your Intelligence could lead to level disparities within the group, which aren’t fun in a game where progression is level-based rather than point-based.
LotR 5e is published using the OGL, which is an odd choice considering that 5e’s core rules are now available under the creative commons. It’s not really a problem, per se, but I would be curious to hear what led to that decision.
I’m very happy with LotR 5e. Playing One Ring is fun, but the default math makes low-experience characters laughably incompetent unless you use the variant rule to adjust target numbers, and combat is often a low point due to the minimal complexity. 5e’s core system brings in a lot of specificity to combat which I personally enjoy and the Callings in LotR 5e offer numerous exciting options to keep players engaged when swords come out.
I’m still on the fence about which version of the system I prefer. There are a lot of fun bits in One Ring that depend on rolling 6s in your dice pool which are lost in the move to 5e, but the accessibility of the 5e rules and more involved Callings could easily make up the difference.
Somehow, I think that’s the problem that Free League wants us to have: we’re spoiled for choice, but they’re happy to see us play either option.