The One Ring RPG designer on Kickstarter success, capturing spirit of Tolkien, Amazon series

Tabletop role-playing games have been on the rise, and with people coming together virtually, many have been taking the hobby online. For fans of RPGs and The Lord of the Rings, they have flocked to The One Ring RPG 2nd Edition’s Kickstarter, making the campaign an instant success. It has now reached over $1 million, and that’s not bad for the original goal of just $12,032. We had the chance to chat with The One Ring RPG designer, Francesco Nepitello, on what fans can expect from an RPG based on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, his start in creating RPGs, and his thoughts on Amazon’s upcoming series.

The interview was conducted on November 12th and has been edited for length and clarity.

Nerd Reactor: Is that Middle-earth? What am I looking at? [Looks at the map behind Francesco.]

Francesco Nepitello: It’s part of the region called Eriador that is to the west of the Misty Mountains. So it’s where the Shire is.

How did your journey all begin as a designer?

Francesco Nepitello: My colleague Marco Maggi and I designed our first published game back in 1993, and it was a role-playing game, actually. So we are role players and role-playing game designers since quite a few years back; too many. [laughs] And since then, we’ve moved over to design mainly board games for a long time, because, at the time, it was a viable occupation to be working on rather than role-playing games for a while. After games like Magic: The Gathering came out, role-playing games suffered a steady decline for a number of years until they started coming back.

That’s why around 2011 – a little earlier than that in 2010 – I was contacted to work on The One Ring. But that happened after Marco, Roberto Di Meglio, and I had our biggest success with War of the Ring, a strategy game based on The Lord of the Rings that was published in 2004. And after 16 years, it’s still selling steadily in the tens of thousands. So it’s the game that really puts us in the panorama of game designers. And that’s why I was contacted to design The One Ring RPG as a game designer who was very well versed in Tolkien. So Marco and I accepted the challenge at the time. We were a bit wary because it was a very big challenge to accept, especially since we’re from Italy; we’re not native English speakers. The game was supposed to be in English. And then also there’s possibly nothing else that is more British than The Lord of the Rings. So it’s something that was difficult, but we already demonstrated that we were proficient in that field.

By having designed the game world that is considered one of the most thematic games ever, it’s been in the top 10 BoardGameGeek for four years. And I think it’s still number two in the war games section. It’s still very, very well respected as a thematic game. So we had to try and do something that was as respected for its respect for the source material as War of the Rings was for strategy games. We endeavored in designing a game that was completely based on the source material. We didn’t think about designing a game that was just another role-playing game, but it was a game that needed to be designed from the ground up to be exactly The Lord of the Rings game. And it seems that from the success that the game has enjoyed back at the time and throughout the years, we had supplements and a parallel line based on the rules for the fifth edition. That was very well accepted. And now, the Kickstarter is proving that we must have done something right because people flocked to the Kickstarter page and pledged to it. I think that we just pushed the right buttons with the game and we also pushed the right buttons for going to the right company like Free League. Before we got involved with them, it was a company that had earned the respect of thousands of players around the world. And in fact, it was the reason why we went to them because we were already fans; we were playing their games. Yeah. So that is the story in a nutshell, and here we are.

Are you excited? Because the last time I checked on the Kickstarter for the 2nd Edition, it was around $700,000.

Francesco Nepitello: Oh, and I like that it’s now on the first page of Kickstarter as a featured project. I didn’t notice that now but it’s also among the projects they love. Yeah, we have almost 6000 backers right now.

And the goal was like $12,000. And so it just shot up… way up. Are you surprised by that?

Francesco Nepitello: I didn’t even discuss the goal with Thomas and the other guys from Free League. So I think it was set very low just because they, of course, knew that we were going to do it anyway. Until the very end, we were unsure if we were going for Kickstarter. The company before already had a big IP in their hands with Alien. And in that case, they decided to go for the pre-orders rather than go through Kickstarter. Also The One Ring has a very big license with The Lord of the Rings, so it was always there. It was not sure that we were going to need Kickstarter for the best result possible.

But I think that Thomas had a very good intuition in saying that we should use Kickstarter because it’s going to be more publicized. Hype will build faster, and it will be more efficient if we go through there. We will also engage the fans more by going through Kickstarter. And we can also explore possibilities to make the project even better by adding stuff, thanks to the stretch level mechanics that you have in Kickstarter. It’s something that would not have been possible in a simple preorder. We were expecting success, but we were not expecting this level of success. It’s something you might have noticed by the delay we experienced in putting out more stretch goals. We’re stumbling after the growing funding.

I’ve entered the RPG world recently. I played a little bit before, but 2020 was a year where I was playing more of it and learning more of it. What was that like for you, seeing how the landscape has been changing. Do you think this is a good time to release this?

Francesco Nepitello: Absolutely! We were quite old as I was telling you as game designers, and it started in the 90s. We’ve seen the whole story of role-playing games throughout the ages. And we started playing with D&D even before the more popular Red Box. We were playing with one of the earlier editions of the game back in 1983. So we went through a period where role-playing games were all the rage, and then we had thousands of products out, companies coming and going, and some of the big companies disappearing and other ones taking their place. So D&D, then Middle-earth role-playing and then Vampire and Shadowrun. Oh, every type of fiction was being translated into role-playing games. And then there was a moment when everything went down because different types of games were taking their place. It was role-playing games using computers, and then it was Magic: The Gathering.

But for some reasons, luckily, the old fashioned way of playing a fantasy game is showing that it is really still a very valuable mode of entertainment, especially a storytelling game around a table, or as we are doing now on zoom or other types of face-to-face software to connect people from different places. It’s also the relative ease that a creator can actually give a forum to its own ideas in a final product, sometimes even going without a publisher in the first place because they can go through Kickstarter, or in any case, through software to make your product look good. And cheap, print printings are also available to print on demand. There are so many ways for people to get their ideas formed and to turn them into a product. It’s making it possible for so many role-playing games to be back on the market. And, of course, it changed when bigger companies became interested in that again. D&D encountered a new youth when outside media started to be interested when things like Strange Things or Critical Role happened. Our way of playing went out of the original borders. So yeah, this is very much the Golden Age. I mean, we’ve been talking about different Golden Ages in role-playing games, but I think that we are absolutely in the best golden age that we ever had.

And then we have The One Ring RPG. What is it that you wanted to bring to this? Because you’ve been working on this since the first edition.

Francesco Nepitello: The Lord of the Rings can be seen as intimidating because it’s a complex world full of thousands of details. And sometimes people that try to read The Lord of the Rings are blocked by, for example, the sheer number of names that are there. People are finding it hard to remember who’s who. And so there has been a sort of urban legend that it’s impossible to play a role-playing game set in Middle-earth and in The Lord of the Rings also because all the big things are being done by the heroes of the stories. So what are your characters going to do in a world like that? We accepted it as a challenge back in 2010 when we started developing the game. We will show that you can enjoy the world of Middle-earth as much as you can enjoy any other fantasy world. Because there’s much more gaming in a world like that than is shown in the stories. There is room for plenty of sagas to be told.

But of course, it’s not easy. You cannot simply take The Lord of the Rings and put it into a box and make it again. You have to show people how you do that. And I think we did that with the first edition of the game, by choosing a specific timeframe that is between the story told in The Hobbit and the story told in The Lord of the Rings. People that have seen the movies don’t realize that it’s actually like a 60-to-70-year gap between the two. So there is room for a couple of generations of heroes who are not dwarves or elves with long lives. There’s room for so many heroes to experience their own stories.

We have studied the sources to distill the gaming material directly from the stories to give you ways to get in and to feel like a part of the story without feeling like you’re an imposter with Aragorn, the dwarves, Bilbo the Hobbit, and stuff like that. So it was something that people were always intimidated by and sometimes just thought, “Okay, I give up. I’d rather play D&D because the Forgotten Realms, Mystara and other worlds are more open for us to play with total freedom.”

Luckily, thousands of players played the first edition for years now. And they’ve been building their own stories. And sometimes they come to us by telling us what their players did for four decades of playing time. They even have players that passed on the torch of their adventuring to their heirs. And I had a friend send me a drawing that he made of characters who got married in the game. So yeah, they’re really having the time of playing alternate lives.

What are the different products for the Kickstarter campaign?

Francesco Nepitello: We have two products that are being sold with The One Ring Kickstarter right now. One is the core rule volume, and the other one is the starter set. They’re both set in the area that we have here on the map that is the Eriador region, a wide region where the ancient realm of Arnor was once placed, but it failed long ago. So it’s a place full of ruins and castles and abandoned places. It seems like a desolate area for players to actually be able to adventure in, but that’s exactly what we’re trying to do this time. We’re really focusing the game on exploring the area of Eriador. The characters are almost, for the first time, going out of their own houses, taking the road to adventure and seeing what happens. So exceptional types, not simply people that like to stay home.

On the Starter Set, we’re focusing more on the hobbits themselves. The Starter Set is an introductory game, and you don’t create characters. You don’t have the rules for creating characters there. You have pre-generated characters to take the role of. This represents the angle that we have on the game in general, because the characters you play were not invented by us. They are historical characters from the stories because you will play Drogo Baggins, that is the father of Frodo Baggins because we are now in 2065. That is a date that is several decades before the War of the Ring. Bilbo Baggins is there but Frodo Baggins is not yet born. So you will play his father, you will play Paladin Took, Peregrin’s father, you will even play Lobelia Baggins, who was one of the nasty characters in the story that is sort of the archenemy of Bilbo Baggins who wants to take all of the houses in Hobbiton.

So we are really placing the players straight into the stories of The Hobbits into their own land, dealing with the hobbit-level type of problems. They won’t be fighting the Nazgûl. But still, we made it in a way that it’s really interesting because it’s sort of supernatural investigations and it’s the stuff that people are already picking up as a way for younger players to play in. For example, if some older player has sons and daughters, they can easily get them to play in the game using the Starter Set. It’s going to be softer in some themes, and less rough than the core will be because, of course, the core will put the players back into the role of adventurers who are really risking their lives going outside familiar territory.

Can you talk more about the core mechanics and the upcoming 5th Edition?

Francesco Nepitello: Sure. Like the previous edition, the game was built from scratch to be “the game” on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. So everything needed to be built; all the mechanics needed to be built around that idea. We didn’t want to adapt anything to the source material. We didn’t want to use something that was already there and use it for that purpose. So we wanted to invent something, and that was The One Ring. And it is still now in a revised and updated version. Years after the release of The One Ring, we published adventures in Middle-earth that are the adaptation of The One Ring to 5E. We realized at the time that the two markets are separate. There’s not a lot of people that play D&D Fifth Edition that play other games, or at least the larger percentage of players that play D&D just played D&D. They don’t play something else, and they’re not really interested. So in a way, we were making The One Ring for purists, so players that are really interested in getting the most faithful experience possible out of the game set in Middle-earth. And the Fifth Edition for people that wanted to have a wider opportunity of play, like more flexibility, even if that costed something in terms of being faithful to the source material. So what we will do with Free League is exactly this. We are setting the fundamentals with The One Ring 2nd Edition, and the fundamentals also of the product line. And then we will follow with the 5E adaptation of the same game.

Credit: Free League

With the book, it looks really nice including the inside with the artwork. It feels like Tolkien and it’s just classy.

Francesco Nepitello: Yeah, I think that Tolkien enthusiasts are a peculiar and demanding lot. It’s hard to walk that fine line between something that is faithful and something that is not. If you go towards too much dynamic and adventuring, you might end up in full, high fantasy territory. And on the other side, it can be simply illustrating the stories if you just go for full representation, so it’s a fine line. You have to do something that is not showing Aragorn, Legolas or Gimli, and you’re showing someone else. And at the moment we’re showing someone else. Some purists might say, “Okay, that’s not The Lord of the Rings because these people don’t exist.” So to really capture the same feeling of stories, not showing exactly the same episodes and exactly the same characters, you really have to achieve the almost impossible. And I think that with the first edition, we had a fantastic art direction by Jon Hodgson, who was also an accomplished illustrator that made most of the art for the game at the time with a lot of other very good artists. The game felt like it was The Lord of the Rings. And felt it was not exactly the same story, but something set in the same world.

With Free League and with the new game, we really wanted to make something different because, of course, the game was already 10 years old. So people have seen everything in several iterations, books with the same art style, and so on. So we wanted something fresh, and also the company is a different one. So we needed to make a difference because it’s not the same publisher, and luckily, Free League has some exceptional contacts and some exceptional internal artists working for the company like Martin Grip.

So we have Martin Grip and we have Alvaro Tapia handling the black and white illustrations inside. We have Christian Granath, the art director of the company. They started to look around and see how they could capture that lightning that made the game really Tolkienian without repeating everything, without going back to see the art of Alan Lee or John Howe. We had John Howe, for example, working for The One Ring First Edition because we made a few covers for the game. So without going there again, we needed something fresh, and at the same time, felt authentic. I think we’ve made it because we have Alvaro Tapia, who was looking at stuff apart from his artistic background. He has loads of references from anthropological to archaeological stuff. So he is making drawings that are not simply fantasy, but he’s actually drawing people and creatures as if they existed in an ancient past of our own world. They have weapons in their hands that could be found in a barrel in a tomb – here, now – back from thousands of years.

And Martin Grip has a very distinctive and very dark style, and we thought it was perfect for the theme of the game that is the Twilight of the Third Age. The world is going towards darkness in a way and players will fight back that darkness. So we had to show something that explained and express that. And Martin was really good at finding his Tolkienesque mood.

And last, Christian Granath looked at Tolkien’s own notebooks and drawings to make a layout that felt like that. And if you’ve seen the spreads from the Kickstarter, they look like they’re handwritten by someone. He used the same palette and the same colors that Tolkien used in his own drawing, so a lot of red over the parchment and stuff like that. Everything together is like a puzzle at the end, showing something that really feels like Middle-earth. So I’m super happy.

Art by Martin Grip

Have you come into a mindset of, “How do I design this to reach out to more players? Players who have never played RPGs before or jumping into The Lord of the Rings for the first time?”

Francesco Nepitello: Well, yes. Luckily, we had 10 years, basically, of the game being played by people. So we received a lot of feedback. And one of the things we set out to do was to polish the game system as much as possible. We knew that the game worked because people enjoyed it. But there were things that people were pointing at as possible weak points. So we went there and gave it a very hard look. Instead of simply saying, “Okay, we could tweak a couple of numbers here and there,” we said, “No, how can we really redesign this with the same design principles and basically the same end results, but in a smoother, simpler way.” We kept all the fundamental elements so people that played First Edition of the game will feel perfectly at ease with Second Edition. But we took the chance to do some of the things and just make them different and simpler, giving the same thematic result.

From the point of view of people who come into the game without any experience of role-playing games, I really hope that in this case, it’s the intellectual property and the fascination for Tolkien that will bring them to us. And I think that they will be really pleasantly surprised, because we get a lot from players of the game that, when they go back to read the stories, feel the stories are more their own thing now. Having played the game, they feel a part of that world. And the game uses basically the same vocabulary that the book uses. We have all the words that are connected to game mechanics that are taken straight from the books. So whenever you read a description of something like a fight, or maybe a council, or the characters having a journey, it feels like it’s the game being played. So if you’re a fan of the stories, you will recognize that when you play the game and say, “Okay, that’s why I’m here because I want to play in Middle-earth.” And that’s what I’m actually doing. I’m not simply playing a fancy game that is painted like The Lord of the Rings. No, it’s the same world.

Amazon is doing its own The Lord of the Rings series. You have mentioned before that there are different licensing issues, but does the show make you want to try to tackle it as a game?

Francesco Nepitello: The licensing stuff is, of course, different because Amazon bought their license from the family itself, the Tolkien Estate. That is an entity that is different for the Middle-earth Enterprises that is giving us the way to create games. It’s a complicated story of licensing.

But I can tell you one thing. Amazon, for various reasons, decided to set their own stories in the Second Age of Middle-earth, and the Second Age is a historical period that is not covered in the main stories known by most people. So they’re not in The Lord of Rings, and it’s not in The Hobbit. For me as a fan, the Second Age is wonderful to read about in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, but it’s not something I feel that I really wish to read more about, like having more stories, unless they were from Tolkien, of course. So for the moment, I’m really on the fence with the Amazon thing. I’m super curious, of course, and I will watch it from the first moment it’s out. I’d probably buy it in every form or shape, but I am in a position that I need to be pleasantly surprised by them because I fear they might be just creating something that could be similar to fanfiction. There’s nothing wrong with fanfiction, but from a big media company like Amazon doing a multi-million project, I would have liked to have something that was closer to the actual Tolkien stories.

For a while, it was considered that they might go for the stories of young Aragorn. I would have loved to see that more than stories from the Second Age. But again, I will be very happy to be surprised and proven wrong by Amazon if they really care for the source material, and if they really find someone who can tell the good tales that will feel exactly in the right place in Middle-earth.

The One Ring RPG is now available to back on Kickstarter.

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