Arda in a distant mirror: Some problems of RPG design in Tolkien’s world

Anders Blixt: Hägervägen 16. 122 39 Enskede. Sweden

Despite the fact that they often deal in similar genres, literary fiction and role-playing games arc very different modes of artistic expression. For instance, while the modem novel privileges the inner development of its characters, role-playing necessarily emphasizes externalized problem-solving and interpersonal action. To capture the overall feel of a literary world through the medium of role-playing therefore requires a certain skill in translation, which may very well result in a product distinctly different from the original literary work. For no author is this more true than for Tolkien.

It is always problematic to work within a secondary world created by someone else. In the case of Middle-earth, there are two complicating factors. The first and most significant is that, unlike the worlds of other living authors where new primary materials are forthcoming (e.g. Thieves’ World), J.R.R. Tolkien is unavailable for further comment, while his son and posthumous editor, Christopher, is completely uninterested in the existing role-playing spin-offs based upon his father’s work.

The second problem in translating Tolkien’s stories into gaming material is that many aspects of his world which would be of great importance to RPG design (e.g. the workings of magic) are left largely undescribed or only hinted at. The same goes for adventure settings, where the most rewarding source materials exist precisely for those settings (e.g. the Shire, Rohan and Gondor during the War of the Ring) which may be of least interest to the gamemaster because of their constrains on individual leeway for player-character action. Conversely, earlier settings with better campaign opportunities are less well-described by Tolkien (Unfinished Tales in particular contains some valuable essays, while other useful information can be sifted from The Letters and The Silmarillion.).

Confronted with these initial obstacles, the prospective RPG writer must begin with the extant texts, draw analogies from suitably parallel phenomena in the primary world, and invest (largely) original material with the approximation of a Tolkienian style. In other words, if Tolkien’s world is a secondary creation, what is called for is tertiary” creation on the part of the game designer.

Consider the Third Age as a potential game setting. In order to avoid a monolithic Free Peoples vs. Sauron” complex a la the War of the Ring, a temporal setting must be chosen in which widespread turbulence may be combined with an equally wide scope for independence of player-character action. While Iron Crown has chosen to emphasize the 1640s, in which western Endor is preoccupied with recovery from the Great Plague, I myself prefer the 15th century (which includes both the Witch-king’s invasion of Eriador and the Kin-strife in Gondor), and the 19th and 20th centuries (which see the lengthy Wainrider wars). All three of these settings share in common a limited treatment by Tolkien in Appendix A” of The Lord of the Rings, whose skeletal outline of their background affords the RPG designer a generous degree of autonomy — something most designers enjoy.

To achieve a successful tertiary creation in the RPG medium, the central themes and conceptions of its originating structure — the literary world of the author — must be present. These themes and conceptions must, of course, be modified and developed, but they ought not to be substituted for material completely foreign to those of the original author.

This tension may be illustrated by Iron Crown’s usage of primary world analogies for the development of Middle-earth RPG settings.

The creative use of real-world” analogies upon which much of Iron Crown’s work has been based is certainly not, in principle, foreign to Tolkien’s own creative process. For instance, just as Tolkien had the Rohirrim speak Anglo-Saxon, so Iron Crown has patterned the culture of the Dunlendings off of that of the archaic Celts. But where the latter has chosen to develop settings located beyond the confines of Tolkien’s own map, the quality of the content has decreased notably and the Tolkienian flavor is lost, leaving the consumer with a generic sword and sorcery” setting. For example, when I read the ICE modules Shadow in the South or Greater Harad, I have no feeling of being inside Tolkien’s world (unlike when I read a module like Thieves of Tharbad).

Because of the inherent limitations of Tolkien’s world discussed above, and the need to remain true to its central themes and conceptions, it may prove necessary to turn to other sources for inspiration (I have often found the plot constructions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories to be useful in designing detective-style adventures set in Middle-earth.). When one considers that, despite the grandiose scale of The Lord of the Rings, the everyday life of most inhabitants of Middle-earth remained unaffected by the grand schemes of Endor’s leading individuals, it becomes evident that adventures of more modest scope than destroying the One Ring can be equally entertaining.

The basic purpose of role-playing is to create enjoyment, and each Middle-earth RPG design must be modeled to conform to the participants’ own conception of Tolkien’s world. Because it originates as literature, Middle-earth can possess no definitive RPG interpretation, and to shackle or constrain oneself to another’s view as if it did would be a sure way of destroying the pleasure of gaming.


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