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THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

ROLEPLAYING TOLKIEN: RPGs IN MIDDLE-EARTH

In honour of his birthday, 3 January 1892

Despite the nearly ubiquitous presence of orcs, elves, dwarves, and halflings in fantasy gaming, there have been only three official, licensed Middle-earth RPGs; Iron Crown's Middle-earth Role Playing or "MERPS" (1984), Decipher's The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game (2002), and Cubicle 7's The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild (2012).  Each has it's merits and adherents.  But "Tolkienesque" gaming is a bit like chasing the unicorn.  It isn't so much about mechanics, statistics, or spell lists as a certain spirit, or tone.  The reality is, with the wealth of Tolkien reference manuals out there (such as here), any popular game system could be adapted to Middle-earth with very little effort.  

In his letter to Milton Walman (1951), Tolkien provides a brief sketch of his Middle-earth works.  In it, he includes one of the most succinct descriptions of his themes; "...Anway, all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine" (p. xvii The Silmarillion, Harper Collins 1998). Using these three concerns, the following is a very brief summary of the steps a GM might take to make his or her favourite game system a Middle-earth game system.

FALL

Middle-earth is a lot more "Cthulhu" than you think.  Well no, not really, but the central mechanic of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu, Sanity, is ideal for the first of Middle-earth's great themes, the "Fall."

The Fall essentially begins with Melkor, and through him, is a Shadow that infects all of Middle-earth.  The world is essentially a Fallen world; too much contact with it tempts and erodes the spirit.  This is why the Elves are so reluctant to intervene in it, this is why "death" is considered the Gift of Men (freeing them from it).  Constant exposure to loss, pain, hardship, and the forces of the Shadow (be it Morgoth or Sauron) leads to oppression and despair.  

What a good Middle-earth system needs then is a version of Cthulhu's Sanity mechanic, or the World of Darkness's Humanity.  Let's view it as a spectrum with "Hope" at the high end and "The Shadow" at the low end.  Using Cthulhu's Basic Roleplaying mechanics, Hope begins as the POW stat x 5.  Immoral acts, such as robbery or murder, trigger Hope Rolls--a percentage roll using your current Hope score as the base.  Failure results in a random loss of Hope points (a d6, d8, or d10 depending on the severity of the act).  Likewise, pain and suffering require Hope rolls, such as enduring a serious wounds, going without food or water for extensive periods of time, suffering torture, etc.  And, of course, encountering servants of the Shadow require rolls as well, with minor loses for things like Orcs (a d6 perhaps) and massive loses for something like the Nazgul (d12, d20, etc).  

Falling towards Shadow (0 Hope points) is a terrifying thing.  Quite simply, it removes you from the game.  At zero, humans, halflings, and possibly dwarves become servants of the Shadow.  Essentially, they lose all hope and surrender to the Enemy.  Elves surrender instead to the call of the Sea and must depart Middle-earth.  But the process of getting to 0 is painful too; any time a Hope roll is failed, in addition to the loss of Hope points the character temporarily enters a state of Despair.  During this time he or she suffers a penalty to all non-defensive skill rolls and activities.  In a Basic Roleplaying game, the Hope score temporarily becomes a skill roll cap; for example, if a warrior has 75% in his sword skill and enters Despair with a Hope score of 40%, his new sword skill percentage is 40%.  This state may last minutes, hours, or days depending on the situation.

Of course, there should be ways to recover Hope--resting at Imladris, stopping to eat lembas, drinking miruvor, defeating the agents of the Shadow, and so on.  But in keeping with the theme of the Fall these gains should be minor, perhaps a d4, d6, or d8 at most.  This keeps Middle-earth campaigns from being your typical fantasy RPG, where constant adventure makes you stronger and stronger.  Tackling the Shadow should be a terrible thing which demands sacrifice.

Fortunately, there are a number of variations of the Sanity system out there, from the d20 version in Monte Cook's Call of Cthulhu conversion to the Savage Worlds version in Realms of Cthulhu.  Likewise, the Humanity track from World of Darkness games can be converted over as well.  The main idea should be though one of nearly inevitable decline from adventuring.  Bilbo retired.  Frodo sailed into the West.     

MORTALITY

This one is related to the concept of the Fall.  A Middle-earth game needs to be about death.  Nothing is permanent.  Everything fades. The immortality of the Elves is not the gift it seems to be...it chains them to a world that constantly crumbles around them despite their best efforts.  Men are fortunate that they die.  

Now, there are a few simple ways to incorporate this.  Most game systems have some sort of rules for ageing.  Use them.  Second, take a page from King Arthur Pendragon or The One Ring and space out your adventures; put a year or two (or even a decade) between them.  Obviously, this doesn't happen between chapters in a single quest, but when one concludes leave some time before the next begins.  Have the players talk about what they did between adventures.  Did they marry?  Have children?  How did they spend their loot?  This is Middle-earth so you don't need to obsess too much about gaining experience between tales.  It isn't about that.  Tolkien is the "slow food" of fantasy gaming.  Leave "fast food" to other worlds.

Please note, it isn't necessarily important that your Middle-earth game be lethal.  It doesn't have to be "gritty."  If you focus on the passage of time and the inevitability of death, you are closer to Tolkien than a game system that chews up character after character.  If your game likes the fast-paced cinematic action of something like Savage Worlds, that's just fine.  Just make sure that after twenty or so adventures the characters are all ageing.  Encourage the idea of having children, watching them grow, and then taking them over perhaps as fresh characters.  There are some advantages to this.  True, long-lived dwarves and elves will be more powerful, but they will also have more fragile Hope scores than the younger, fresher heroes who replace their forebears.

THE MACHINE

Here is the Big One, the Sticky One.  In a word, "magic."

"...I have not used 'magic' consistently, and indeed the Elven-queen Galadriel is obliged to remonstrate the Hobbits on their confused use of the word both for the devices and operations of the Enemy, and for those of the Elves...(b)ut the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference.  Their 'magic' is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete...(a)nd its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation...The Enemy in successive forms is always 'naturally' concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines..." (ibid, p. xviii)

Middle-earth is of course a highly magical place, but it is not magical in the way that most D&D settings are.  Both of the first two licensed Middle-earth RPGs were a bit too magic-heavy; The One Ring neatly avoids the problem by not including any magic-using character types.  How much magic you include in your Middle-earth campaign is a matter of taste, but to keep it Tolkienesque you should bear the distinction between Elven magic and the devices of the Enemy in mind.

At the heart of Middle-earth is this notion of the world as Creation; it is the work of Eru, the One (God).  Elven magic is sub-creation, it works inside the boundaries established by Eru and it does not seek to change the essential nature of thing.  Usually it just enhances.  The nature of a sword is to defend against an enemy, so naturally an Elvish sword is sharper, stronger, and possibly even glows blue when the enemy is near.  The nature of a cloak is to protect against the elements and to conceal, so naturally an Elven cloak keeps you warmer and makes it easier for you to hide.  It is not the nature of a sword to shoot lightning bolts or of a cloak to give you the power to fly.  These things go against the nature of the object, and thus are devices of the Enemy.

A very simple way to handle Elvish magic is that it grants bonuses.  A cloak gives bonuses to stealth rolls, a sword gives  bonuses to hit and to damage, lembas bread gives bonuses to rest and recovery, etc. If you stick to this, you are safely within the bounds of sub-creation.  Additionally, Elvish magic is primary passive; Rivendell, for example, is hidden from intruders...it doesn't have a force field around it that blasts intruders to bits.  Further, Rivendell is not hidden in plain sight, it's not invisible.  Again, in keeping with sub-creation, hidden Elven communities simply enhance the power of nature to conceal them; they are usually in hidden valleys or woods and the Elvish magic simply gives bonuses to that concealment.  Actual invisibility, as we all well know, is a device of the Enemy.

As a final note, Elvish magic originates from within.  The Elves are, after all, inherently magical.  Elvish wine and bread is not necessarily enchanted by spells...it is simply magical because the Elves who made it are magical.  Why are the Elves magical?  Because they are meant to be magical.  This is also the case of Maiar spirits like Tom Bombadil or the Istari (Gandalf and his fellow Wizards).  They don't command an external power, their magic comes from their natures.   

The Enemy, however, is "the Lord of magic and machines."  Note that Tolkien does not see a distinction between the two.  This is because the Enemy's magic does not originate inside its user but is always an external device, a "machine."  The power of the Nazgul comes from their rings, not their inherent natures.  The Enemy's magic is not about enhancing the natural properties of an object, but artificially conferring powers it is not supposed to have.  The most common example is granting immortality, or at least longevity, to those not meant to possess it.

Please note when we use the term "devices of the Enemy" here we do not necessarily mean they come from Sauron or Morgoth directly.  Rather, they ultimately derive from the corruption Melkor wove into Creation, a lust for power that is not rightfully yours. Whether or not they come from the Enemy directly, they always fall under his dominion.  

Feanor's Silmarils are a good example, because they possessed a light that properly belonged only to the Two Trees.  It is the nature of jewels to sparkle and be beautiful, but their light was a stolen one that properly belonged to something else.  Not surprisingly, then, the Silmarils led directly to the Fall and Exile of the Noldor and the destruction of much of the West.  Likewise, the palantiri are a sticky case; it is not the proper nature of stones to convey messages or grant clairvoyance...so again they eventually fall under the power of the Shadow.

The magic of the Enemy is always meant to dominate or change the essential nature of a being or object.  It is an external power the user is not meant to have.  Because of this, using a device of the Enemy always requires a Hope roll with the threat of losing points and sliding closer to the Shadow.

Now, there are of course blurry cases.  The Mirror of Galadriel seems dangerously close to a device of the Enemy, but Galadriel is, after all, a High Elf from the West.  We are told that she possesses the inherent gift of seeing into the hearts and minds of others, and her mirror really just seems to be an outward extension of her power.  Likewise, Gandalf often stretches the case; pine-cones are meant to burn, but turning them into flaming missiles is a bit extreme.  Again, he is a Maiar, and he is rightly imbued with power to challenge the Shadow.   

In summary, here is a checklist of Tolkienesque magic;

Elvish Magic
- Enhances natural properties
- Grants bonuses
- Is passive rather than aggressive
- Inspires hope and wonder
- Doesn't require a Hope roll

The Devices of the Enemy
- Comes from an external source (a device or spell)
- Grants powers the user would not normally have
- Is meant to dominate or transform
- Inspires despair and terror 
- Requires a Hope roll

So long as you stay within these bounds, you are free to make your Middle-earth campaign as magical as you like, or to use whatever system for it you desire, and it will feel more or less Tolkeinesque.

AND A FINAL WORD ON ELVES

With these three things you are well on your way to making your favourite game system suitable for Middle-earth.  But there is an issue we probably should touch on; what to do with the Elves.

There is a tendency to think of the Elves as super-human, and why not?  They are immune to disease and ageing, they are able so see partially into the spirit world, they seem highly resistant to extremes of weather, they don't require sleep but rather spend an hour or so meditating, and everything they make is magical.  And this is just the Elves who stayed in Middle-earth; the High Elves that returned from the West are even greater.  When you add to this the fact that they also tend to be more beautiful, more graceful, taller, more resilient, etc, you end up with a play balance nightmare.

Make it work for you.

If you are using a game in which stats are rolled, require would-be Elf players to roll just like everyone else, but in order to actually be one you need to roll high.  For example, in a 3d6 stat system, require Elves to have 12 or higher across the board.  With High Elves, go ahead and demand 14 or higher.  The trick is to remember that there are humans who are more beautiful than some Elves, or taller than some Elves, or more graceful.  The Quendi simply tend to be better.

In point buy systems, require the player to purchase high minimum stats, leaving less for skills.  A beginner character Elf need not be a supremely skilled member of his race; it is very likely he isn't.

Also, remember to use Hope against them.  Instead of ageing rolls, Elves must make annual Hope rolls.  They are a fading race.  Their time is nearly done.  They are meant to go into the West.  Making them more susceptible to the weariness the world inspires than other races is not only very Tolkien, it helps to balance the scales a little.

Beyond that, don't worry so much about it.  The Lord of the Rings has a party composed of a Maiar Wizard, a King, a Dwarf warrior, a Human warrior, an Elf prince...and four inexperienced Hobbits.  Play balance is not that much of an issue.









  








     










  














  

     

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