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The Lord of the Rings arrives for D&D’s 5th edition next month, make a save vs. irony

Official D&D rules for hobbits are on the way

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The Lord of the Rings novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, a series which directly inspired the creation of Dungeons & Dragons, will be formally adapted for the iconic role-playing game’s 5th edition. But it’s not D&D’s current publisher, Wizards of the Coast, that will bring that product to market. Instead, it’s the hugely successful team at Free League Publishing which has two brand-new books up for sale starting May 9.

We’re big fans of The One Ring: Roleplaying in the World of the Lord of the Rings. The reboot of Francesco Nepitello and Marco Maggi’s tabletop RPG, originally published in 2011, was released by Free League in 2022 after a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign. At the time, reviewer Linda Codega called its homespun setting a “microcosm of a massive, familiar world” that “pushes the narrative beyond the traditional hero’s journey.” We found the boxed starter set in particular to be charming, with extraordinary art and more historical hobbits inside than you can shake a stick at. A 5th edition port of the setting and its many adventures sounds like just the thing to open the setting up to a wider audience at the table.

But let’s linger just a moment on the many ironies of this current licensing situation.

When D&D was young and bold and run out of a two-story residential home in rural Wisconsin, the team at TSR — the game’s original publisher — was working on a new board game titled The Battle of Five Armies. It was named, of course, after the famous battle first mentioned in The Hobbit which took place between five factions from Middle-earth on the slope of the Lonely Mountain. But the game ended up being an albatross, and the controversy surrounding it would ultimately change the course of D&D forever.

The Tolkien estate took issue, of course, and according to a post on the EN World forums by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax himself, the resulting lawsuit was settled out of court. Here’s a quote from Gygax’s own 2002 message board post about the situation:

TSR was served with papers threatening damages to the tune of half a mil [sic]. The main objection was to the boardgame we were publishing, The Battle of Five Armies. The author of that game had given us a letter from his attorney claiming the work was grandfathered because it was published after the copyrights for [Tolkien]’s works had lapsed and before any renewals were made. The action also demanded we remove balrog, dragon, dwarf, elf, ent, goblin, hobbit, orc, and warg from the D&D game. Although only balrog and warg were unique names we agreed to hobbit as well, [and] kept the rest, of course. The boardgame was dumped, and thus the suit was settled out of court.

The great irony here, of course, is that Wizard’s recent attempts to alter the Open Gaming License — also known as the OGL — would have required that Free League pay a hefty licensing fee back to the owner of D&D based on the success of this project. But after a weeks-long campaign by fans, who showed their discontent online and by canceling their subscriptions to D&D Beyond, Wizards capitulated and moved the OGL and its associated rules into the public domain. That means Free League is able to release its adaptation of The One Ring TTRPG for 5th edition D&D without paying Wizards a dime.

As if to cement its victory, Free League has even been so bold as to change the name of the product to The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying.

Further piling up the ironies in this situation, Wizards itself is currently embroiled in another lawsuit, this time with a newly resurrected version of TSR — which is also operating out of the same two-story home in rural Wisconsin. In that lawsuit, this new TSR asserts that Wizards let its own copyrights lapse, skipping over the necessary renewals to keep several of its legacy brands alive. That case heads to court in October.

Notably, neither The One Ring nor The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying are the first attempts at a TTRPG literally based on the world of Middle-earth. Middle-earth Role Playing — known affectionately as MERP to its fans — was published in 1984. Later, Cubicle 7 adapted the setting to 5th edition with its Adventures in Middle-earth, published in 2016.

The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying will be published as a 236-page hardcover book, including six new classes and six new cultures — including the hobbits’ return to D&D. Shire Adventures, a 104-page collection of five lengthy encounters, will also arrive on May 9.

Update: We’ve adjusted our original story to account for two legacy tabletop role-playing games — Middle-earth Role Playing (1984) and Adventures in Middle-earth (2016).

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