Editorial: Vision or illusion?
So, where is this “role-playing in Middle-earth” thing going anyway? Every game concept (potentially) has a chance for its moment in the limelight, when all the world (or at least the greater part of the gaming world) is seized with sudden interest and excitement at something new, innovative, or striking; when a particular rule system or world achieves notoriety beyond the narrow confines of its introverted cult following; when its adherents feel as though the endless hours of imaginative energy they have invested into that world have become a part of something larger, something of value over and above the simple enjoyment of role-playing. Has this moment already passed for Middle-earth? Was it ever there in the first place? Is there a future for this passion or will it, like us, one day fade into obscurity?
This is a question I have been asking myself for a long time, and it may well be that Other Hands was conceived in part as a space for answering that question. For before one can even presume to contemplate such a thing, there must be some sense, some suspension of disbelief, that a network of Middle-earth gamers exists at all. Many may think this an unnecessarily extreme point of entry to take, but it rings true with my experience at any rate.
Think about it. How many people do you know who actually role-play in Middle-earth on a regular basis or as their primary game — as compared with, say, how many people play Dungeons & Dragons, or Cyberpunk, or Call of Cthulhu, or Vampire? In my own experience, not many. It is my impression that Middle-earth gaming is in truth quite marginal to both the fantasy role-playing world on the one hand, and to Tolkien fandom on the other.
With the former, Tolkien’s world is, I think, largely absorbed into the by now thoroughly generic conventions and expectations of heroic fantasy (conventions and expectations which Tolkien’s own writings helped shape) such that, whatever may be its actual merits, in the minds of the vast majority of gamers, Middle-earth simply rehearses (if even in exemplary fashion) those conventions.
Things are not so different in the realms of international Tolkien fandom. Although a burgeoning new interest in Tolkien exists now in Europe, it has been my experience that Tolkien enthusiasts are all too often turned in upon themselves in their struggle to champion the genius of Tolkien’s writings to a literary establishment that was never listening in the first place, and to a general public whose once energetic slogans of “Frodo lives!” and “Gandalf for president” have long since become cultural artifacts of the 70’s. I do not want to paint a wholly negative picture of Tolkien fandom — great advances have been made and continue to be made in many fields of inquiry and enjoyment — but in all of this, role-playing has had small part, being typically viewed as one of the many haute-vulgarizations of Holy Writ.
So where does this leave Other Hands and its 23 paying subscribers, scattered across seven countries throughout the globe? We may be few in number, but we are persistent; and we have a forum that will be around so long as there are voices to fill it. But what of the future, the undiscovered country? There is certainly much work to be done. If Middle-earth gaming has the potential for greatness (or, more modestly stated, the capacity to become something of lasting value to gamers and Tolkien fans alike), then the remainder of this final decade of the century (and, indeed, of the millennium!) will be the time for us to lay the groundwork.
The massive revision project of Iron Crown’s Middle-earth series is certainly a step in the right direction, as is the publication of the first ever MERP campaign module. But the real task at hand still lies with us, the readers and contributors of Other Hands, to define the underlying nature and unique character of the fantasy setting we have chosen for ourselves.
By “uniqueness” I do not mean to appeal to any particular quality — real or imagined— inherent in Tolkien’s world. Instead, what truly distinguishes Middle-earth from all other fantasy gaming worlds is what we as gamers choose to give it. Tolkien has provided us with a canvas to paint upon; but in the last analysis, we cannot presume to rely upon the alleged virtues of that literary edifice if we hope to create a game setting that will advance beyond rehearsing the litanies of the past. It is only on the basis of this realization that an opportunity exists for us to raise a voice that will someday be heard in the world outside.
And now on to the introductions for this issue. We are grateful to the Tolkien Society (UK) for granting us permission to reprint a fine pair of essays from Mallorn, their annual publication. Both of these articles were written by Michael Hickman, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a Tolkien Society seminar in 1990. Michael has an extensive background in the comparative study of religion, and his articles (the second of which will be appearing next issue) are incisive treatments of religious practices in Middle-earth. As such, they deserve to be made more accessible to the gaming community.
The first of these articles, which appears in this issue, focuses on the Dúnedain. This is an important, ground-breaking study, which drives home the central point I attempted to make in my own article in OH 2; namely, that no disembedded religious institutions or personnel exist in Middle-earth because the priestly role is — and, indeed, only can be— fully manifested in and performed by the King and those to whom he chooses to delegate sacral power. To be sure, other channels of divine power will exist alongside the person of the King, but such “spiritual” hierarchies would follow a parallel principle of organization. In this way, Hickman’s article may serve as a paradigm for developing religious structures among other peoples of Middle-earth.
The next piece we have in this issue is by Deena McKinney, editor of the role-playing magazine MOTiVE which, as the bibliography she has provided us shows, contains a substantial amount of Tolkien-related material. Deena has been running a game based in the far northeastern corner of Middle-earth (based on the ICE map), and has written a brief campaign outline. It is always interesting to see what sort of settings people choose for their Middle-earth games, especially if these are exotic or unfamiliar. I would encourage more of our readers to share their own campaign ideas with us in future issues.
The other way to share ideas is through adventure scenarios, and we have two to offer you in this issue. The first, by our resident artist Jeff Hatch, is a classic murder mystery set in Arthedain in T.A. 1450. The second, by Torquil Gault, is a magic item quest set in eastern Eriador in T.A. 1643. We hope you enjoy both.
Finally, we have been graced with reviews of two new MERP products: the Palantír Quest campaign and the revised Moria citadel module. If you own a copy of a 2nd edition Iron Crown publication that has not yet been reviewed in Other Hands, please take it upon yourself to do so. We want to have a diversity of critical voices commenting on the most recent work by ICE, as it is an effective medium for giving them constructive feedback on their efforts to improve the Middle-earth line.
Chris Seeman — January 1, 1995
Contributors: Michael R. Hickman Jeff Hatch Torquil Gault Deena McKinney Gerrit Nuckton Greg Bailey
Editing: Chris Seeman, Frances Poon
Layout and design: Lisa Disterheft-Solberg, Nicolas Solberg
Artwork: Sophia Caramagno, Jeff Hatch
Mea culpa: Errata for Other Hands 6 – 7
The page bar for last issue incorrectly read “Issue #5 — April 1994.”
- p. 7
- “It is a relatively simple task for most referees to conjure up crazed fanatics in black robes worshipping Darkness around a blood-stained altar [not ‘alter’].”
- p. 12
- “she hated all making, all colors and elaborate adornment, wearing only black and silver and living in bare [not ‘bear’] chambers.”
- p. 26
- “Umbarean merchants provide rare and exotic woods, herbs, spices, silks, precious substances not generally available in Eriador (such as pearls [not ‘perils’]), and manufactured/crafted goods from around the world.”
- p. 26
- “Trade ties between Umbar and the people of Eriador dates from the first founding of Númenórean colonies in Middle-earth. As the Númenóreans became estranged from the elves that portion of Umbarean trade diminished, but never ceased. The practical merchants of Umbar never let biases, personal enmity or outright hostility interfere with lucrative trading relationships except when the risks outweighed the potential gain.”
Other Hands is an international gaming journal devoted to fantasy role-playing set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s secondary world of Middle-earth. It is a quarterly, nonprofit publication welcoming submissions dealing with any aspect of gaming in the context of Tolkien’s world: scenario ideas, rule suggestions, gaming product reviews, gamemastering aids, bibliographic resources, essays on Middle-earth, and whatever else our readership would like to see in print. In a word, Other Hands aims to be the definitive Tolkien-related gaming journal for a worldwide role-playing community. Within the pages of Other Hands, the interested gamer may publish materials with reference to any game mechanics he or she chooses (including Rolemaster and Middle-earth Role Playing). Such gaming material may deal with any time period of Tolkien’s world, and need not be bound to what has already seen print in Iron Crown’s modules. Other Hands provides this freedom because it is a nonprofit publication.
Subscription rates are as follows:
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- Outside the USA:
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Payment should be made to Chris Seeman: PO Box 1213, Novato, CA 94948, USA. No Eurochecks, please!
Submissions are welcome in any form (preferably legible), but are easiest to edit when received on a floppy disk. Word for Windows is the editing software currently in use, so if there is any question as to the readability of your disk, please save your document in ASCII or text-only format and include a hard copy. All submitted materials remain the copyright of the author unless we are otherwise informed. All submissions must be sent to Chris Seeman: PO Box 1213, Novato, CA 94948 (USA). Please write me or call if you encounter any difficulties, my phone number is (415) 892‑9066. Please also note that I may be reached over Internet: email@example.com
Dear friends of Other Hands,
I enjoy reading your magazine greatly. I think it is not only interesting but also useful. But, as you will read, I don’t think that your goal (relating Tolkien to role-playing games) is an easy one.
I have been playing role-playing games (RPGs) for more than six years. This means that, although D&D is my favorite system, “dungeon-crawling and monster-smashing” became boring to me long ago. When I discovered MERP I got confused: was it possible to visit Middle-earth through gaming? Could I talk with Legolas in Mirkwood or meet the mythic Gandalf the Grey?
I didn’t believe it could happen but I decided to try…a few times. And up to this moment I have never played a game in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Sure, I have enjoyed some — very few— good fantasy adventures but not with the special flavor of real Middle-earth. And I ask myself whether it is possible to play RPGs in Middle-earth. I will not categorically deny it, but there are many factors that make me think it is not.
The first problem I find is Middle-earth’s origin. It came into being as a very personal, artistic (literary) creation; that is, an intimate communication between its “sub-creator” and an unknown reader. RPGs are also a kind of art, but they are enjoyed in a group. Middle-earth is an eMOTiVE message directed to an individual person (each reader) while role-playing is a social activity. In reading The Lord of the Rings, we feel sadness, tenderness, fear and hope, none of which feelings are to be shown in a group whose main goal is to have fun. So, the only Middle-earth we can visit through RPGs is a mutilated one.
The second problem I find is the nature of the game itself. RPGs are a social activity whose goal is to entertain. Fun can be obtained in one of two ways: either by exploring the rules’ limits by killing, looting, destroying, and casting impressive spells (thus impersonating a “super-self” for some hours); or by playing a well-defined character in a long campaign that lets your character develop a personality by interrelating with other characters — in other fantasy worlds, not in Middle-earth.
The first way doesn’t fit Tolkien’s Middle-earth because it requires a great amount and variety of monsters (the stranger, the better), and Endor does not possess a rich fauna in this sense (even when ICE designers invent such ridiculous species as the Kraken or the Umli). It also requires spectacular magic performances, and we all know that Tolkien’s world is not a very pyrotechnic setting. Finally, the “Super-self” which a player impersonates needs truly heroic deeds and impossible quests to fulfill, but in Middle-earth there are no huge, epic adventures left. So, if your character cannot kill Sauron (Remember, it’s Frodo’s work!) what is he supposed to do? Of course, you can kill Sauron and set fire to Gandalf’s beard if you want, but then you are not in Middle-earth but in some other fantasy game setting.
The second way (that is, impersonating a character in a realistic Middle-earth style) is even more difficult. It is possible to play many hours without using your sword (even though most people would find it endlessly boring), but it is not possible to role-play without speaking. You recreate Middle-earth with words, just like Tolkien did, but Tolkien spent his whole life sub-creating. Each word spoken by Aragorn is the result of careful thinking, while in a game session we need to invent our characters’ speeches immediately. As a result, our noble Dúnedain speak like modern city dwellers (when they don’t use slang words). So, in comparing our Middle-earth with Tolkien’s, we get depressed.
We can try a mixture of both ways. We can design exciting adventures in a faithful recreation of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, perhaps by filling those lacunae that have obsessed us for many years. Usually, these adventures happen in Arnor or Gondor and include some palace intrigue, good exhibitions of swordsmanship, and fighting against Umbar renegades or servants of Angmar. But although such plots are respectful towards Tolkien’s data, they are not different from other fantasy settings, while Tolkien’s fantasy is very different from all other fantasy tales.
That’s what I think. But by no means do I wish it to be this way. I would like to discover that role-playing is possible in Middle-earth (not in a pseudo-Italy called Gondor or a kind of Mongolia called Khand). That’s why I read Other Hands with interest, and that’s why I help the roleplaying commission of the Sociedad Tolkien Española as much as I can from my position as its president. If there is a way of producing role-play in Middle-earth, I hope Other Hands will help to find it.
Pablo Ginés Rodriguez C/Florencia, 7, 3°, D 08041, Barcelona Spain
Dear Chris and Other Hands,
As a new subscriber, I wanted to compliment you on the outstanding quality of your publication. Regarding Issue 6/7,1 found most interesting Jason Beresford’s articles on Tarma Tar-Calion and Umbarean trade (despite the typos), as well as Anders Blixt’s article on Minas Tirith. While the adventures are well done, the essay articles greatly appeal to me for two reasons. First, I have found no other forum for discussions of this type and, second, I am fascinated by the creative reasoning the authors apply in reaching their conclusions.
Chris, I agree with your statement that a mock history conjured up by a role-player tends to be more interesting than others since the role-player actually intends to do something with it. In other words, if I may paraphrase you, a good mock history (or geography, or economy, etc.) created by a role-player will actually work. Others will participate in the role-playing author’s sub-creation and test whether it meets Tolkien’s standards of “the inner consistency of reality necessary to induce secondary belief.”
Professor Tolkien certainly has created a believable secondary world. We, the “other hands,” make the attempt of expanding on his creation. Jason’s and Anders’ articles both regard Middle-earth as if it were a real place, and apply real world logic in their articles in order to expand the “reality” of it.
I also agree with your position that even Tolkien’s writings may be reinterpreted, as Jason did with his Tarma Tar-Calion article. This is especially true when, as in this case, the reinterpretations improves upon the consistency of the subject with both the primary and secondary world.
There was, however, one problem. Anders Blixt’s article came to the conclusion that Minas Tirith’s solitary gate made supply of the city improbable I have to agree that this is quite reasonable, given the evidence available. Professor Tolkien had apparently created a non-working metropolis. This rather undesirable situation has sent me to search through various sources in an attempt to resolve this dilemma and make the unworkable work. I hope to share my findings with you in the future.
Please keep up the good work. I look forward to more thought-provoking articles of this type and hope that other potential authors will share their discoveries about Middle-earth.
Bernie Roessler 1113 West Hermosa Tulare, CA 93274 USA
I found the piece on “Innate Magic” in Issue 6/7 a particularly inspiring one, and I am very pleased that die Tarma-Tar-Calion problem would seem to be resolved to everybody’s satisfaction. Your own adventure certainly also counts among the highlights of the issue. However, my opinion is that it really only makes sense to run it as part of a more comprehensive campaign. For while the plot itself is pretty straightforward, the circumstances of the player-characters’ involvement require rather careful preparation, otherwise the adventure may be more than half-over before the players get the feel of what is going on or even to figure out just who is who in the adventure.
On innate magic in Middle-earth there has also appeared an article by Marcus Wevers, whom I don’t know otherwise, in the October issue of Windgeflüster, the national role-player’s guild quarterly (see bibliography addendum in this issue of OH). With this same issue a flyer fell into my hands advertising the activities of the guild’s recently constituted Tolkien study group. I don’t know whether you’re already in contact with any of those people (I still have to get in touch myself). Apparently one of their principal aims (which, it would seem, they share with the role-playing section of the Sociedad Tolkien Española, according to Eduardo’s letter in OH 5) is to devise a more Tolkien-suited set of gaming rules than the present MERP ones. Their November workshop will deal with, as you might have guessed, magic in Middle-earth.
Dirk Brandherm Basler Strasse 19 79100 Freiburg i. Br. Germany
Bibliography of Middle-earth materials appearing in the gaming journal MOTiVE.
Compiled by Deena McKinney, 410 Rustwood Drive, Athens GA 30606, USA. Phone: (703) 369‑9373. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- David Wendleken — Raid on Lauremar (adventure with historical background and setting)
- David Wendleken — Relics of Middle Earth: Luindae (magic item)
- David Wendleken — Sultase: A Middle Earth Martial Arts Form
- David Wendleken — Middle Earth Entertainment David Wendleken — Personalities of Northwest Endor (NPCs)
- Edward Sleight — Sauron: A Philosophy of Evil Edward Sleight — Personalities and Organizations of Endor
- David Wendleken — Love Conquers All (adventure scenario)
- David Wendleken — Treasures of Middle Earth: Annalissa (magic item)
- Edward Sleight — Sauron: A Philosophy of Evil, Part II
- Edward Sleight — Rhymes from the Shadows (poems as dues for adventures in Middle-earth)
- David Wendleken — Heartstrings: Minstrel and Bard Spells
- Edward Sleight — Sauron: A Philosophy of Evil, Part III
- Edward Sleight — Organizations of Endor, Part II
- David Wendleken — Treasures of Middle Earth: Sulindo and Serelinde
- David Wendleken — Making Items of Power
- David Wendleken — Personalities in Northwest Endor, Continued
- David Wendleken — Timeline for Carnemirie Galantiriel (PC timeline)
- Edward Sleight — Sauron’s Helpful Hints for Humans
- Edward Sleight — Patrons for MERP
- Edward Sleight — Dursuel: MERP Villain
- David Wendleken — Treasures of Middle Earth: Lissecore
- David Wendleken — Personalities of Endor, Continued
- David Wendleken — Elven Party Games
- David Wendleken — Treasures of Middle Earth: Elvish Weapons and Armor and Gear
- David Wendleken — Springtime in Arthedain (scenario)
- Deena McKinney — Clothing in Middle Earth
- Deena McKinney — A Letter from Elrith (fiction)
- David Wendleken — The No-Win Scenario for MERP
- David Wendleken — Treasures of Middle Earth: Lanni
- David Wendleken — Campaign History (our campaign)
- Deena McKinney — Clothes of the Elves
- David Wendleken — Magic in Middle Earth David
- Wendleken — Machiavellian Elves in Middle-Earth
- David Wendleken — Treasures of Middle Earth
- David Wendleken — Memories and Tales in the Dark (fiction)
- Deena McKinney — The Wedding of Elrith (fiction)
- Brad Townsend — Fealin’s Accounting of the Withered Heath (fiction)
- Deena McKinney — Tolkien’s Elves
- David Wendleken — Short Adventure Ideas
- David Wendleken — Treasures of Middle Earth
- Deena McKinney — Middle Earth for Fantasy Hero: Roleplaying in Arthedain, 1970 Third Age
- Deena McKinney — Elrith’s Disgrace (fiction)
- David Wendleken — An Herbal Infusion (scenario)
- Deena McKinney — The Miller’s Tale (scenario)
- David Wendleken — Magic and Elves in Middle Earth
- David Wendleken — Treasures of Middle Earth: Eärnur’s Banner
- Wayne Crotts — The Tale of Carigorn (precursor to scenario)
- Wayne Crotts — The Spears of Savaron (scenario)
- Deena McKinney — The Myr Campaign
- David Wendleken — Privy to Death (fiction)
- Deena McKinney — The Assassin, the Thief, His Lover and the Mage (scenario)
- Deena McKinney — A Nightmare for Melyanna and The Fugitive of Gondor (scenarios)
- David Wendleken — Cold War in Arthedain (fiction)
- Fredrik Ekman “‘Excuse me; how do I get from the tunnel like hall to the gates of Mordor?’ or The Art of Squeezing the Literary Masterpieces of this Century Into a Computer Game” Beyond Bree October, 1994: 2 – 5; November 1994: 2 – 7
- Hartley Patterson “Dungeons of Middle-earth” Amon Hen 80: 17 – 18 [review of MERP]
- Eduardo Martinez Santamaria “Other Hands: Un ejemplo a seguir” Estel 1994: 23 – 25
- Marcus Wevers “Magie in Mittelerde” Windge-flüster 1994: 40 – 43
We are currently standing at the threshold of several new Middle-earth publications by Iron Crown Enterprises. The Dol Guldur citadel module has just gone to press, and the Elves people supplement will be back from the printer’s pretty soon. A Hobbit board game is supposed to come out in February. Later 1995 releases will include Laketown city module in March, and (tentatively) a Shire realm module in May.
The Kin-strife campaign module is slated for release sometime this February, and it should run 240 pages or so. The interior artwork will be by Kent Burles and David Martin, while the cover art will be a republication of Angus McBride’s cover to the 1989 Middle-earth Adventure Guidebook II (which depicts Castamir’s sack of Osgiliath in T.A. 1437). In all, the Kin-strife contains a total of 21 full-length adventure scenarios, each of which are set in or near one of Gondor’s seven principal cities during the Usurper’s reign (T.A. 1437 – 1447). The three final adventures are set respectively in Dunfearan, Rhovanion, and in an indeterminate urban center in Gondor (GM’s option). Accompanying these adventures is a lengthy introductory chapter which details the history of the civil war and its effects on Gondor.
The Southern Gondor module is currently scheduled to be completed by April, which would place its release date at sometime in the fall of 1995. This realm module will cover all the lands of Gondor south of the White Mountains: Andrast, Anfalas, Belfalas, Morthond, Lamedon, Lebennin, South Ithilien, Tolfalas, and Harondor. The remaining lands under Dúnadan hegemony will be covered in the Umbar module and in a projected Northern Gondor companion module (both of which are in preparation). Southern Gondor will incorporate, revise, and expand upon materials previously published in Sea-lords of Gondor, Havens of Gondor, Erech and the Paths of the Dead, and Haunted Ruins of the Dunlendings. The module will also include two chapter-length mini-campaigns as well as some sixteen shorter adventure scenarios designed to give added flavor to each of Gondor’s various regions.
I just got off the phone with Jason Beresford, who says that about 50% of the Umbar realm module has been written (some sections of it being more complete than others). Jason’s work involves a significantly larger magnitude of original thought and labor than the other realm module projects, since (unlike the materials making up the bulk of the Arnor and Gondor modules) the original 1982 Umbar publication focused almost exclusively on the city of Umbar itself, leaving its surrounding territory largely undescribed. Jason related to me that he plans to include four or five adventure scenarios of variable length in the finished module, but no foreseeable date for the completion has yet been given.
Reporter: Chris Seeman
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