Corruption in Middle-earth: A look at the use and consequences of power

Chris Pheby: Hadspen Cottage, Hadspen, Castle Cary, Somerset BA77LR, England.

The Lord of the Rings is founded upon the premise that the search for power and knowledge contains within itself the possibility of corruption, and throughout Tolkien’s writings these themes are closely intertwined. The imaginary races of Middle-earth are each defined in terms of their susceptibility to corruption as well as their capacity for resisting the lure of power. A gamemaster who seeks to incorporate this nobility of resistance” into the realm of game mechanics may wish to consider the following rule suggestion for a statistic embracing the quality of fortitude,” designed for use with the Middle-earth Role Playing and Rolemaster rule systems.

As with the doctrine of Original Sin, the potential for corruption in Tolkien’s world inheres within a per-son’s created nature; hence, noble actions and a desire to do good may work to offset the corrupting influence of power — on the other hand, such efforts may paradoxically lead one down the path of evil. It is worth considering the corrupting consequences of power in Middle-earth since, in a role-playing context, the pursuit and acquisition of power in its various forms is a common orientation of player-characters.

Exemplars of Corruption and the Races of Middle-earth

Examples of the self-undoing and ultimately self-destructive nature of the will to power abound in Tolkien’s writings. The discord introduced by Melkor into the Music of the Amur locates the primal Fall before the creation of the world and sets the pattern for those who are to follow. Among the ranks of the Maiar, the figures of Sauron and Saruman are exemplary of two different paths of corruption. Sauron’s conscious allegiance to Melkor from the beginning, and his unchallenged inheritance of his master’s dominion which in turn led to his own overthrow, may be contrasted to the more complex character of the wizard Saruman, who began with a desire for good but whose attempts to fight the Enemy with his own weapons resulted in his metamorphosis into that Enemy. Significantly, this fall from grace was accompanied by the acquisition and creation of powerful artifacts and the knowledge of their use. Interestingly, both Sauron and Saruman in their origins were of Aulë’s people, whose characteristic desire to make in the fashion of their Creator was fraught with the ambiguities of sub-creative power. Other examples of betrayal and self-deception brought about through the promise of power include Ar-Pharazôn, the Nazgûl, the Dead Men of Dunharrow, and the Haradrim.

Individual propensities for corruption and resistance are to be situated within a larger context of racial and cultural characteristics. Men as a race are extremely diverse and, as such, are subject to varying degrees of corruption and corruptibility. Lesser Men, such as the Easterlings or the Haradrim, are highly susceptible to the lies of the Enemy; by contrast, the Edain, blessed by Ilúvatar with heightened faculties of discernment and fortitude, are paradoxically more vulnerable to the fear of Death and the desire for deathlessness within the Circles of the World. The Northman ancestors of the Dúnedain share many of the weaknesses of Lesser Men but are set apart from the latter by their enduring ties with the West.

As a subset of Men, Hobbits represent something of an anomaly within Tolkien’s world. Their absence from the recorded history of Middle-earth is used by Tolkien to amplify certain qualities which make them distinctive in their ability to resist corruption and domination; namely, their lack of desire for power. Most Hobbits have neither the will nor the need to go out of their way to obtain power; instead, their activities are oriented toward contentment. The whole idea of ad-venture” — at least at the time of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — is unpalatable to their sensibilities. This general avoidance, however, does not erase diversity among the different branches of Hobbit-folk.

Dwarves are characterized by an uneasy coexistence of intense loyalty and honor on the one hand, and a potentially amoral vanity and greed on the other. The former positive qualities are most forcibly presented in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, while in The Silmarillion their less admirable qualities are more often emphasized (though this impression may be, in part, a result of the implied Elven perspective of Tolkien’s narrative of the events of the First Age).

Of the kindreds of the Elves, the Noldor exhibit the greatest similarities to the Dwarves and, as such, often share in the unstable affinity between nobility and corruption. As a whole, however, the Eldar are to be distinguished from all other races with respect to power and corruption because of their deathless nature. Because of their unalterable connection to the life-span of the world itself, Elves lack to a certain extent the drive for temporal power that characterizes mortals. This quality, however, is balanced off by their closer connection to the sub-creative process, which leaves them prey to all the temptations associated with such power. As Time wears on, the Eldar become both less motivated to actively strive for power and more keenly aware of the Enemy’s machinations — hence, in the Third Age Sauron was no longer able to deceive the Elves or to cajole them into his service. This generalization, however, may not technically apply in the same degree to Avari Elves dwelling in places other than north western Middle-earth.

Artifacts of Power

Iron Crown’s Middle-earth Role Playing products often leave one with the impression that Tolkien’s world is overflowing with magic items;” but scarcity (rather than abundance) would better characterize magical artifacts within Tolkien’s sub-creation. Those few that are mentioned tend to carry with them a weight of doom and history which often has a great deal to do with defining their use and personal consequences. Most artifacts enhance some faculty or capacity of their user, often bestowing power in direct proportion to his or her own inherent power or capabilities. This progressive increase of power, however, may be accompanied by a corresponding, corrupting influence over the user. Moreover, the full potential of an artifact is often only realized or understood as it extends control over its user. In this respect Tolkien and Lovecraft share a similar view of the transgressive effects of power and knowledge on the self. This contradictory dynamic requires a corresponding game mechanic in order for it to be evoked effectively in the course of play. The concept of a fortitude scale” is introduced to serve this function.


The Fortitude Scale (FS) is measure of a character’s natural leaning towards good or evil. It bears some resemblance to the traditional concept of alignment,” but is dealt with differently. Proximity to and/​or use of power beyond one’s measure may diminish one’s Fortitude score. Fortitude may be maintained or regained through resistance to the temptation of corrupting power, or by the performance of certain actions defined by the gamemaster as being in opposition to or in rejection of the corrupting evil. The maximum Fortitude attain able is defined by the level of one’s natural or inherent power. A character whose Fortitude score has fallen to zero or below has become irrevocably corrupted and effectively leaves the control of its player at the game master’s discretion.

Two possible methods are here presented for generating Fortitude: 

1D100 roll; reroll any score below the character’s Intuition statistic,
Fortitude = lowest prime statistic of the character, and may not exceed Intuition score by more than 15 points.

Either method is valid. Note that the second method tends to generate a higher score. If neither the MERP nor Rolemaster systems are being used, the easiest method for generating the Fortitude Scale statistic is to convert two appropriate statistics to percentile scores and use them as described above.

Race Modifiers
Umli +4
Vanyar +20
Noldor +10
Teleri +5
Avari 0
Half-Elves +5
Fallohides +10
Harfoots +15
Stoors +15
Beornings +5
Black Númenóreans –10
Corsairs –5
Dorwinrim 0
Dúnedain +5
Dunlendings –5
Easterlings –5
Haradrim –5
Lossoth 0
Rohirrim 0
Rural Men 0
Urban Men 0
Variags –10
Woodmen 0
Woses +15
Uruk-Hai –15
Common Orcs –10
Half Orcs –10
Olog-hai –20
Normal Trolls –10
Half-Trolls –15

Using Fortitude

The FS statistic may be used in a variety of situations. All players are required to make a successful FS role (as a percentage) whenever their characters gain a level of experience. A failed role results in a loss of FS equal to the number of the new level. This simulates the potential for corruption occasioned by the new level of mastery. This does not imply that the character is becoming evil; it simply means that if a situation emerged in which that character was required to resist the lure of corruptive power, his or her claim to greater mastery would prove to be one more disadvantage. An FS roll may be required if a character initiates combat against an opponent of lesser level than him or herself. A failed roll results in the loss of a single FS point. An FS roll may also be required whenever a character makes use of magical power not otherwise inherent to his or her own being (i.e. any kind of magic that is acquired”). A failed roll results in a loss of two FS points. These examples are intended to be illustrative of how the FS statistic might be creatively used at the discretion of a gamemaster. Similar circumstances may be designated as opportunities to increase or award FS points.

Fortitude may be deployed in several contexts outside of combat. Examples include knowledge-focused research (e.g. spells), mid-level increases for certain skills, and so on. Role-playing based” examples are more difficult to offer generalized guidelines for, but could incorporate mundane forms of corruption” (e.g. dishonesty, bribes, treachery, vice, etc.) as well as magically-charged events such as oath-breaking or crossing purity boundaries. Once again, FS rolls should be made at the GM’s discretion. The use of artifacts may require an FS roll modified by the Will of the artifact (1 – 20). A failed roll results in FS loss appropriate to the magnitude of the artifacts’s Will, or by some other criterion.


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