Lord of the Rings is the adventure that every gamer wants to experience. A broad adventure traversing the most dangerous territories as the shadow of Mordor looms overhead, it is the epitome of thrilling adventure with harrowing results if the heroes fail. Tolkien’s universe set the groundwork for many journeys on and off the table, so it only makes sense that Free League brings a slice of Middle Earth to your table with the official Lord of the Rings Roleplaying supplement for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.
If you are already incredibly familiar with the mechanics behind Dungeons & Dragons, then you’ll feel right at home with this supplement. It does a whole lot more than just slap a Lord of the Rings skin on an already established system. It introduces a massive number of new rules, settings, and mechanics to your table. The only question is: does this book do its job of making you feel part of a Fellowship? Let’s look at what this book lays out and how it works for the players and the individual running it.
Taking place between the events of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, this book gives you a sliver of space where there is still conflict, Sauron’s army is still growing, and safety is not a guarantee. The age of man is still on the cusp of failing as alliances are on the verge of shattering. Still, the greater threat to all has yet to fully reveal itself, leaving your party to fill in the gaps between these two adventures.
While this concept is neat, allowing you to explore the vast land of Eriador, there are still plenty of elements missing, such as the rest of Middle Earth. I don’t see it as a negative in the grand scheme of what this book wants you to do. Having limits on an adventure can still provide the players with a solid experience that can last several sessions. Lord of the Rings is a story involving brave, legendary heroes that live on in song and ancient tombs, whose adventures are carved into the walls of mighty halls. The players do not match a status like Aragorn, but they can still have an impact on Middle Earth; it just requires a bit of narrative finesse and imagination.
While lands like Mordor, Gondor, and Rohan do not exist within the lands of Eriador, you still have some incredibly detailed locations that will help lay the groundwork for your adventure. While you could create your own home-brew adventures within those lands, the core rulebook has an entire chapter filled with the gritty details of Eriador, ensuring any adventure taking place within that land is just as exciting as Frodo’s while making it your own.
This is key, because Lord of the Rings Roleplaying is designed for shorter stories that lie within very specific confines. You are adventurers that heed the call; whatever it may be, that is up to you and your Loremaster.
For the Players
There are a few limitations that are quite unexpected when it comes to player choice, but it makes sense to me considering the events of the movies and books. For instance, instead of levels 1 to 20 that we are typically familiar with, the Lord of the Rings Roleplaying halves it but makes all ten levels more robust. It is designed for the type of adventure that the players will take part in, and the lore-master will plan, which I will talk about later.
The reduced level structure also gives the players more time to think when it comes to how they develop their characters. While combat is a huge part of this universe, the emphasis is mostly on engaging with your party, tracking where you are going, and keeping out from the Eye’s line of sight.
An important note to mention is how the core rulebook details and changes the perspective of character creation. There are no “races” anymore, and instead they are called “heroic cultures,” which best describes this essential decision you make. Bardings, Dwarves of Durin’s Folk, Elves of Lindon, Hobbits of the Shire, Men of Bree, and my personal favorite, the Rangers of the North, each brings something to the table. Each heroic culture offers various benefits to your character.
Instead of typical “classes,” there are “callings.” Each one borrows a few concepts from Dungeons & Dragons that fans should be familiar with. You get the Captain, Champion, Messenger, Scholar, Treasure Hunter, and the Warden. Each calling has a distinct feel with several options available as you become more experienced. A few may have a couple of abilities that crossover to each other, but they can each be valuable to a full party. For example, the Messenger and the Treasure Hunter both have sneak attacks, which is nice because it doesn’t force you down a specific way in how you want to create your character. One thing you will notice is that there is a lack of a pure magic class. There are no wizards like Gandalf here, and there is a specific reason for it: magic usage gains attention from the Eye, but I digress.
While only going to level 10 can feel a bit limiting, there are several trains of thought. Once you hit the level cap, you can keep on playing normally as the game understands some people do not want to part with their character that they spent an entire adventure with. You could also retire your character and start a new one. In the event of a true misadventure, your character could also never make it to the end. Much like how Boromir went out fighting for the good of the party, the game openly welcomes you to meet your fate on your own terms if it must boil down to it.
Other options for character creation include crafts, which add more flavor to your character, giving them a more robust feel that is equally unique. Then you also have virtues, which are like the traditional “feats” of Dungeons & Dragons. You also have equipment, and that is where the customization ends, and it’s the real grit of what makes Lord of the Rings stand out.
One decision that everyone must make as a party, aside from the adventure, is their patron. Unlike the gods or deities, patrons are famous figures like Bilbo or Gandalf who will help add a bonus to the party as well as help the party in moments of confusion.
Creating your character is quick and easy, especially if you are familiar with Dungeons & Dragons. Roll stats, pick your culture and calling, gather your equipment, and pick any necessary pieces of gear you need before you head off. It is all so streamlined for the player that the most they need to do is pay attention.
Starting a Fellowship
Think back to Fellowship of the Ring and follow the events that unfolded in its duration. There is the inciting incident, some travel, then a council where the Fellowship of the Ring comes together. In Rivendell, characters come together to discuss their journey, the problem at hand, the goal, and how they are going to solve this issue. Lord of the Rings Roleplaying painstakingly wants you to experience something like the birth of that Fellowship. It begins to present a litany of rules when it comes to these interactions and breaks them down into pinpoints that the Loremaster should hit with the hope that players pick up on the breadcrumbs.
Rules begin to get a bit crunchy, confusing, and advanced from this point on. Lord of the Rings Roleplaying outlines everything that you will do on a surface level. It is attempting to immerse you into the world and puts the RP in TTRPG. There are several adventure phases to an adventure that reflect the scenes we see in the movies. Social encounters include a “council” which is when multiple characters come together to discuss exactly what is going on.
During a council, there are negotiations, there are plans, and there are moments where players must convince others to lend a hand in their adventure. There are moments where players must interact with powerful NPCs prior to the journey phase. At the end of a council, players are rewarded experience points, making these roleplaying sessions just as important as lopping off the heads of orcs.
Self-explanatory journey phase is the adventure where players will experience the darkened depths of caverns, face off against bandits or orcs, and even experience their shadow path, which is when corruption begins to take over, just like how Boromir was tempted to take the ring from Frodo. This is where the Fellowship phases come into play.
During this phase, players plan to rest, healing themselves both physically and spiritually. These moments can go from one day to even a year, depending on the adventure. Players can gather rumors or meet a patron who will help direct them onto the next leg of an adventure. Everyone gets to experience a slice of life when the Fellowship phase comes. It helps strengthen the bond between characters.
In a realistic sense, these Fellowship phases are great for players who may need to take an extended break between sessions. As an adult with a full-time job and a child, sometimes I’d rather take some time for myself than run a game when I’m not in the right mood. Having this agency that plays into the game itself is really welcoming. Plus, these are places where players can decide that it is the end of the journey for their character. There are unlimited possibilities when it comes to these phases.
In my brazenly honest opinion, some of these rules can and should be optional. Some also don’t give enough emphasis to how the rule works. I spent many hours searching for an exact way to execute a “Magical Success” because the wording just doesn’t feel right and there is no explanation on how to properly trigger this action. Also, breaking down moments of a rest period in a city doesn’t necessarily scream “fun” to me, especially when you are considering the nuances that make these events successful or woeful. Luckily, there are tools to help with that, including the Loremaster screen.
The most important part of the adventure is the Loremaster. This game’s take on the Dungeon Master, the Loremaster is the one that not only builds the world up around the players, gives rewards, and creates puzzles, but also contains the knowledge of the places the players will go to. The name change itself presents an odd sense of responsibility over the game, but when you consider the scale of this adventure, it fits.
The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying puts a huge emphasis on the roleplaying aspect, where acting out scenes and taking in moments of downtime are just as important, if not more, than killing the orcs. This is why the handbook is so rich with information on this region of the map. It is also why there are so many tools at your disposal.
Loremasters can implement a variety of flavors to the adventure in the form of powerful weapons that unlock additional benefits as the players level up. The various tables and equipment feel reduced in comparison to what traditional D&D offers, which is a nice addition. These treasures that you can dole out are also outlined as to when and where they should be obtainable by the players, which is helpful. As I said before, shorter campaigns require you to keep the players incentivized to continue the journey, and this is where I really love the book and its sense of immersion. I always loved the idea of having an evolving weapon or armor that has some sort of tie-in to the lineage. Weapons in Lord of the Rings have stories tied to them, they have names, and they have a sense of personality. It is up to the Loremaster to make that stand out, and there are plenty of ways to do that.
One of the more fun aspects of the Loremaster’s toolbox is The Hunt. Despite this being an optional rule (as the book highlights), it is one of the cooler concepts that really ties the world together. As the players become more successful in their adventure or use magic that they shouldn’t use, the Eye of Sauron begins to gaze upon them. In some cases, the players may encounter a hunting party. This creates a sense of urgency and keeps your players in check. While the game is chock full of nuanced scenarios that require roles, this is the one aspect that feels essential to the experience.
Another limiting factor is the variety of enemies for the players to face. As we know, there are not a whole lot of creatures depicted in the movies or books. Sure, there are the orcs and foes within that realm, but the choices aren’t as vast. You could easily import monsters from the Monster Manual into this world without going too far off the rails. Once again, a smaller set of stat blocks is always best as you won’t have to juggle too much, and that is always a plus when it comes to the battlefield. Plus, it broadens your imagination. Sure, we might not have Shelob, but you could very easily insert the giant spider.
The gracious folks over at Free League not only gave me a digital copy of the Lord of the Rings Roleplaying game, but they sent me a physical copy. When it comes to supplemental materials, I have to say that Free League really knocked the quality out of the park. Cover to cover, you have some strong materials keeping this book together. It doesn’t feel cheap; the paper has a resilient feel while also adding a bit of that raw papered texture instead of a smooth glossy feel. Flipping through the pages makes it feel as if you are skimming the pages of an ancient tome, but less dirty.
Strewn about the book is some magnificent artwork illustrated not just between the chapters and randomly thrown about the pages, but appearing in the outlines and inner covers as well. On the inside cover is a hex-grid map. The borders of the pages also feature some unique designs that change depending on what is being discussed.
Of course, the core rulebook is not the only related item coming from this launch. Shire Adventures is another part of this Lord of the Rings package that gives you a nice campaign to break you into the game. This optional addition provides you with a couple of short journeys that your players can jump into and experience. There is also a breadth of additional lore covering the various farthings of the Shire. You also get a few more stat blocks to play around with as well.
Additionally, there is the Loremaster’s screen, which comes with the insightful Rivendell Compendium. The Loremaster’s screen is a neat barrier that isn’t completely necessary, but it does have a lot of the tables found within the book present. This is great for those “on-the-fly” sandbox moments or for simply looking at in the event you forgot how something operated.
With the Rivendell Compendium, you get a nice breakdown of all the aspects of the Elvish town. This safe haven includes various maps of the famous location. You also get more NPC stat blocks, including Elrond himself. It is a great addition to this package, and it is rather short, so you won’t be overloaded with a bunch of information.
To cut down on the brass tacks of it all, the materials within these books aren’t necessarily brand new. They were released back in 2011 under an entirely different system of their own making. Free League saw a chance to bring this game to the table, converting the old version into a more up-to-date experience with core rules that most players are familiar with.
Naturally, I can’t discuss this content without mentioning the litany of problems that Wizards of the Coast have caused. Whether it be their past acts of racism, not paying their freelance artists, or even the more recent event of sending the Pinkertons on a Magic the Gathering player who obtained cards ahead of time. Some folks might be turned off from playing anything related to Dungeons and Dragons, and if you are one of those people then, by all means, don’t play. I agree with your sentiments. Although, I think you should give this a fair shake.
There are enough differences between Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings Roleplaying. A multitude of differences makes this game feel unique and a complete far cry from Dungeons and Dragons. Sure, there might be a litany of rules to keep in mind, but once you get into the swing of any game, the rules and confusion slide to the back of your mind, becoming more natural to the game you’re playing.
All that being said, I can suggest Lord of the Rings Roleplaying. It does a great job of taking what we have seen in the books and movies and trying to convert them to your table. Massive outlines can be seen as a bad thing to some, but they are necessary to the experience. It might take a bit of extra planning just for the more heavy roleplaying moments, but there is so much potential and so many great opportunities to inject your friends and family into something they may inherently love down the road.