'War of the Ring' and 'One Ring' Designer on the Problems of Adapting Tolkien to Tabletop

The Lord of the Rings is the ur-text of generic fantasy settings.But for a new RPG, one designer is tailoring an entire game system to the source.
Artwork courtesy of Free League

10 years ago, what is widely considered one of the finest games of last decade was released. The One Ring released to a slew of industry awards and robust sales for a young company called Cubicle 7 (now publishing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s fourth edition) and it was a joy to play. Designer Francesco Nepitello came from board games, where he’d designed the equally well-regarded War of the Ring, a sprawling attempt to model the entire war. He applied his boardgame chops to the RPG sphere, creating an elegant take on Middle-earth which, in actual play, resembles the ticking of an intricate watch as its various mechanics link up around a specific Tolkien-esque form of fiction. It’s a game where travel is the most important thing you do, where friendship is a power all its own, and the danger of the Shadow isn’t just that you’ll be ambushed by spiders but that your inner voice will drive you to become grasping and jealous of those same friends, until you wander off into the mountains alone, just as Gollum did.


The One Ring is in the waning days of a hyper-successful Kickstarter campaign as of this writing. It’s a new edition with a new publisher but all of the same promise as the first edition. I spoke to Nepitello about a range of topics concerning the new edition and Middle-earth more generally.

Waypoint: First of all, congrats on the Kickstarter. It was funded in what, four minutes and is still going? I noticed you have a lot of stretch goals. Are you kind of scrambling a little bit to come up with new supplementary material to add in or are these things that you already had ready to go in case things went really well?

Francesco Nepitello: Well, you know there were a few comments. People that said, "Oh, there is no way that they could be so surprised by the success of the Kickstarter, it's a well-known game and it's a very important IP, and so it's impossible that he couldn't expect it to go up so quickly!" 


Yes, we were expecting it to be successful, but that was really beyond our expectations. I already said that before that we were looking at the bar that was set by Twilight 2000 by Free League (note: the current publisher of The One Ring and designer of the Tales from the Loop RPG) and it was quite a lot of money already, so about 1000 backers. But we got to that approximately in a couple of days, and so it was really a little too fast for what we were prepared for. So yes, we had a few stretch goals ready, but we had to start quickly thinking about more.


You know one thing that I really appreciate about Free League is that they really got the fact that we needed to reboot the line. We wanted the new start to be as perfect as possible, and we had quite big shoes to fill because the game line was successful before, but we also thought that we could do more, especially from the point of view of the perception of the game. Because, it happens often: people that you think might know about the game actually never heard about it. 

I don't know what it is, I don't know if it is a combination that the previous publisher was a new company at the time and not yet established 10 years ago, as they are today. To go beyond that limit and find new players, the best way to do it was Kickstarter. That explosion is proof that we actually got beyond the circle of players that already knew the game.


Waypoint: So that provides a good segue into one of my questions which was, well, why do a second edition? My understanding is that the Tolkien license resides with Sophisticated Games, who primarily do board games, and you published the first edition through Cubicle 7. Then a year ago, that relationship ended. But why not port over the first edition to Free League? Why go all in on a second edition, given how well-regarded the first edition is?

FN: We were already feeling more than one year ago now that the game needed some tightening to face a longer existence on the market, so we needed to get a good look and keep what was good to preserve and get rid of any stuff that was not necessary. Again, you know that also sometimes it can be a little bit intimidating for new players to to approach a game that has been out for a long time. Of course, it also makes sense for a new publisher… [Where] you're going to make a sort of a statement: "This is not the same game that was before." At the same time you don't want to alienate the previous fans. 


We were looking at this sort of progression that we decided to have years and years ago, and it was to start right after the story told in The Hobbit and move historically through the War of the Ring. Readers of Tolkien know the gap between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is decades long. It's almost 70 years and so there's plenty of room to tell new stories, so the idea was, OK, we will be starting with The Hobbit and people play the game, play for decades, and at a certain point we will have a second edition or a new incarnation of the game that we move to a different place and we move the chronology onwards. 


So we look at the first edition as the past of the current edition. Unfortunately, the decision by the previous company to discontinue the game has made it pretty difficult for for players to eventually go back to first edition and buy books or buy supplements connected to the first edition, and eventually play the past [the cutoff]. ...Now, of course, it's going to be a little more difficult.

Greg Stafford, who died in 2018, was a legendary game designer whose take on RPG design has proven increasingly influential in the non-D&D sphere. His approach insisted on wedding mechanics to specific genres of fiction rather than aiming for generic rules modeling everything, a step away from systems like D&D and GURPS. The One Ring holds to a Staffordian approach to rules design.


Waypoint: Let me ask you a little bit about game design, because I think that you and I share a favorite game designer in Greg Stafford, whose work is, I think, phenomenal. What did you take from him? I see a lot of his design influences in The One Ring, particularly from King Arthur Pendragon and Prince Valiant.

FN: I’ve been designing games for almost 30 years now. My first game was published in 1993.

But I designed a lot of board games in these three decades, and you know one thing that many designers of board games, especially in Europe, say is that games are born out of mechanics only. Meaning that you probably have an idea about the type of mechanic and then you build a game around it. 

Me and my co designer, Marco Maggi, we always designed games starting from the theme, we never started from a mechanic. So we always fell in love with something like a city or historical period or whatever, and then we decided, okay, which game should fit the theme better, and this is something, of course, that comes from our roleplaying background, and I think that Greg Stafford was among the first designers that really made sure that every game was designed to fit tightly with its theme, so the rules and the game could not be separated.

We had periods in roleplaying history when, for example, people were considering the best way to go was to have a generic system that fits everything. So you could have rules that could fit anywhere. I always felt that by doing that you were missing something, because there was always a price to pay to adapt a game system to an existing game system, so I think that Greg Stafford with masterworks like Pendragon showed that if you use a game system that is born and built around the theme you're going to get a different experience, a deeper experience. 


The One Ring’s travel rules sit at the center of the game, both in terms of genre emulation and elegance. Players pull out a map and plan their route, with each character serving a specific role on the journey, such as guide or lookout. Various dangers and opportunities occur, based on how dangerous and wild the terrain is. 

A hex-map of Middle-Earth that abstracts route planning for a Fellowship-style journey.

Waypoint: One of those mechanics that I think does well in matching rules to theme, that's very important to talk about and is maybe the coolest part of The One Ring, is your travel rules. How did you come up with those and what were some of the pitfalls that you encountered when you were trying to make something that was both kind of abstracted and extremely relevant to the actual gameplay?

FN: And it fits with the background that we have!

There were two things that I started from to develop the journey rules and the first was a question, and I said what needs to be in a game about the Lord of the Rings to make it a Lord of the Rings game? I had this parallel that I made almost immediately when I started thinking about it, which was what do you have in a science fiction game compared with a fantasy game? And in a science fiction game you'll have space travel, especially if it's a space opera. So, if you have starships, you will have space travel, so you have rules to do that and that was exactly the connection I made: okay, well, if you read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings they're both long journeys and journeys are the one of the main elements in any epic storytelling since the dawn of time. The idea that heroes make a journey and they are transformed by it, that's what happens in the Lord of the Rings both physically and psychologically, because, of course, when Frodo comes back from the quest of the ring, he’s a different person, so we needed to have that.


The other consideration was that I wanted to combine this concept with the fact that role playing games always had a problem with equipment rules and encumbrance rules that usually are resolved either in very messy ways, where you have to compile long lists of stuff with the encumbrance ratings and—

Waypoint: That's my least favorite part of every game.

FN: Yeah, some people enjoy it but, for example, I have to make a disclaimer. I design games that I like to play so I don't design games thinking of the most effect they could have on the market. I'm selfish this way. And I never liked games with the fiddly encumbrance rules, so I tried to do away with that and actually journeys were a solution, because they gave you a reason why you should have encumbrance rules in the game. 

Normally, you'll feel the burden of something you're carrying only because you're walking for six hours, eight hours a day. If I just just put on a backpack, I might say, oh that's not very bad, but after a couple of hours along a mountain track here, I will feel it. And that was the point because if you read the books you'll see that nobody goes around in full armor, nobody is fitted with everything they could put on themselves.

One of the debates in both Tolkien fandom and scholarship is the role of racial essentialism in both his work and in fantasy more generally. It’s difficult to unwind and is part of broader debates around personal agency vs. systemic racism, the legacy of colonialism, nostalgia for an imagined rural Englishness, and religion in fiction. It’s also a very old debate; British author Michael Moorcock excoriated Lord of the Rings as fundamentally a reactionary and juvenile work, “Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic”, 50 years ago.


Waypoint: One of the appeals of The One Ring is that it obviously hews to a close reading of Tolkien’s work and you've concentrated a lot on how mechanics can model things in this fiction. But Tolkien also has some less fortunate racialized aspects in his work stuff which derive from a particular colonialist mindset. 

I'm thinking of things like orcs being described in correspondences and notes unfavorably compared to Asian people or dwarves being like Jews.This is all despite his own professed anti-racism. And we chalk that up to him being a person of his times, but The One Ring is a game now, in the 21st century. As a game designer, how do you approach that? What do you keep in as far as what might be seen as racial essentialism and what do you discard, or do you just say to hell with it let's put it all in and see what happens?

FN: I know of course it's dangerous territory, but I don't agree with the point of view that Tolkien could be considered racist because I think that there were enough instances in his letters and stuff to demonstrate that he was probably also more progressive than most of the people of his time. There were things that were probably not put in the best way possible, because we're coming from interviews or stuff like that, but in general, I don’t have any suspicions of him being racist.

At least in the first core rules, we're not offering very wide options for creating player characters from all over Middle-earth. So there's a limited number of options, and those are taken from the main area where the hobbits are, and so we have hobbits, elves, dwarves, and men divided in six countries. But we totally intend to embrace a wider perspective with future supplements, we already did with the previous edition, we had a lot of different options already, but we will go beyond that. Not only because of our modern sensibility to diversity, but, I think because if we didn’t it wouldn’t be faithful to the text.


For example, I want to have in the near future collector options for players from the East, like Easterlings and Southrons. Nominally these are enemies of all the other character types, because the east and south are considered to have been subjugated by the Enemy, so there is a very nice sentence, where it says Sauron is the only god they’ve ever had. So they only have this fallen god. Tolkien is saying that they are not evil, they grow up in this situation where they have a living, fallen god who subjugated them. At the same time, probably one of the only times in the books, where the characters are facing Southrons and there is a respect there and it isn't simply the description of an evil guy.

We have an example of when Sam is looking at the body of an enemy who fell from a mumakil when they are fleeing with Gollum and Same wonders where this guy came from and if he left happily or if he wanted to go back. It's like probably every soldier in any war wandered by looking at the body of an enemy by seeing that it is exactly like yourself. We want to do that, with the option of playing characters from those cultures. It’s entirely in the realm of possibilities from the text, because we can describe them not as mindless slaves, but actual people coming from a different culture and able to be friends.


Waypoint: I think that the old Middle-earth Roleplaying in the 90s had to kind of grapple with some of those same things as well, and I know that, for instance, you can play an orc in that game, breaking free from the Dark Lord’s influence. Do you think that something like that would be going too far, as far as breaking with Tolkien's text?


FN: That's a tricky issue because there's also a matter of licensing. We had some impression in the past that Middle-earth Enterprises wouldn't look too favorably upon something like that. But also I really think Tolkien grappled with this problem all his life, because if you read his letters he was always decided on the nature of evil, but on the nature of orcs it was very much a philosophical and religious problem for him.

In fact, if you read The Lord of the Rings with this in mind, you will see there are a lot of contradictions in there. One of the main problems is that if orcs are not evil per se, then the heroes are butchering them by the hundreds, without any regrets. That's a big moral problem, of course, if these guys are not simply like you know marionettes attacking you relentlessly. So Tolkien played a bit with that and never got to a final decision, but if you read the final chapters, when Barad-Dur falls after the Ring goes into the Crack of Doom, there is a moment where the enemy armies are described as if they’d lost their minds because they suddenly were without a guide, as if Sauron was guiding them. As if they were remote controlled.

But this conflicts with the direct experience you have with orcs in the stories when you read, for example, the Uruk-Hai chapter, where they are very much described like veteran grunts in a warzone. They Uruk-Hai carry Merry and Pippin to Isengard, and you can feel a level of sympathy from Tolkien towards these orcs because these guys are the ones doing the dirty work. They were sent by someone high above them and they are saying, but should we really do this, should we maybe rebel and go back to our homes? So they're very, very humanized and it's a very big problem, because if you look at those chapters, absolutely yes, you could possibly play characters like that, but eventually there's a final thing if you wanted to be 100% faithful to the stories: you would have to face that, regardless of your idea on the nature of orcs and the Enemy in general, there would be no possibility for them to cooperate with the Free People because, on the other side, the Free People, the good guys, hate the bad guys so much they wouldn't ever consider anything other than killing them.

Waypoint: That might be something that a game can do that just reading the novels or his other work can’t, which is to allow you as a player to explore that moral ambiguity on your side, what does it mean to be good in that kind of world, what does it mean to treat the other person as unremittingly evil?

FN: It's very much a problem of moral ambiguity because you can play an orc, but what are the Rohirrim going to do with you?

The RPG market is booming across both established companies and the indie/self-published sphere. D&D remains the behemoth after a fallow period (by Wizards of the Coast’s standards) in the 4th edition era. Where D&D is most dominant, however, might be the newly commodified ecosystem of streamers and professional streamers, where a circle of attention seems to arise: everyone wants to play D&D so everyone streams D&D so everyone wants to play D&D. This creates challenges and no few opportunities for other designers.

Waypoint: I want to close just by talking to you really briefly about the roleplaying game industry more generally. I think there's a strange dynamic where, in 2021, there are more games than ever and there's more people playing them. But it feels like D&D has taken up so much of the attention economy now that it's hard to get shelf space and word of mouth for other games. Everyone just defaults to D&D. Is that a concern for you as someone on the production end, even as we recognize that your Kickstarter went huge? And what does success in this kind of D&D dominated world look like, for you and Free League?

FN: I think that the dominance of D&D was always there, I mean there was a brief moment where other games competed with D&D but actually many were the same thing with a different name. When we had Pathfinder competing with D&D it was just D&D 3.5 or 3.7, so it was the same game competing with itself: Where for board games, for example, we had in the last 20 years an evolution in the market that brought success to a lot of games that are not simply the same ones with different names or with a different brand on them, so there is not simply only Monopoly or Risk, but we have a lot of very, very big successes selling by the millions.

With roleplaying games, everything that is not D&D has always been in a secondary league. I think that the reasoning that we had behind deciding to make a 5th edition D&D of The One Ring (note: Cubicle 7 released a D&D version of The One Ring called Adventures in Middle-earth) was that the two markets are not only separated, but they are exactly parallel. They don't cross. The vast majority of people who play D&D do not play anything else. And most of the people playing other games are not really interested in playing D&D because they played it at some point, maybe they're not interested in going back. Or they go there, eventually go back to another game, so it's really two different markets

In general, though, anything positive that happens to D&D is a good thing for everything else. Because eventually if someone becomes interested in D&D in the first place, they might come to know that there are other games so there's always a sort of a trickle down effect to other games. I don't often see the other way happening, with a lot of people coming to D&D after having been exposed to another roleplaying game. Especially in the English speaking market, D&D will always be there as a sort of a guiding light.