Developing a Magic System for Middle-Earth Role Playing

Andrew McMurry: Balliol College, Oxford OX1 3BJ, England

Thus far, Iron Crown Enterprises has not attempted to produce a magic system for Middle-earth; instead, it has simply taken over the Rolemaster system. It seems to me that the most inappropriate part of the MERP rules is its magic system. In this article I will put forward some ideas for what I think a Middle-earth-specific magic system should be like. Once I get some response, I will try to design such a system in detail. 

Those who read The Silmarillion will notice that the use of magic tends to decrease as time goes on, as does the activity of the Ainur. Before the awakening of the Elves, the Valar made much use of their powers, personally shaping the landscape and creating many wonderful things — like the lamps to light die world — which Melkor destroyed. After having struggled against Melkor in person, they appear to have done very little at all, leaving most of the action to the Children of Ilúvatar.

My explanation for this is that the Ainur entered Middle-earth with a limited amount of irreplaceable energy, which they used up. The reason that none of the Valar took a part in the overthrow of Sauron in later ages is that none of them had enough energy to spare. The Maïar who came to fight Sauron during the Third Age (the Istari) had similarly to conserve their energy in order to be effective. Mithrandir was sent back with more power after the fight with the Balrog because the Valar thought the risk of expending more energy was worth it in order to remove the greatest remaining pool of energy that the Enemy had. In the Fourth and later ages, neither good nor evil had much magical energy available to intervene directly in the world.

From this it follows that perhaps the Children of Ilúvatar, Elves and Men, also have a limited amount of magical energy. But whereas the limited lifespan of Men makes this a peripheral concern, the deathlessness of the Elves (coeval with the life of the world itself) necessitates that this energy not be used without good cause or in grave need. Although it is unnecessary to expend this energy in the course of everyday life, its presence ennobles those who use it in the creation of beauty. By contrast, the absence of its use leaves certain Elves in a very primitive existence, and subject to a more rapid fading.” Most depart for the West, where they are protected when their energy runs too low for them to defend themselves adequately in Middle-earth.

There are two basic forms of magic-use in Middle-earth. The first is use of one’s own energy, which might involve a Channeling song (as used, for instance, by Finrod and Lúthien in The Silmarillion), or some other form of battle of wills (as in the case of Gandalf and others’ struggle against Sauron in The Lord of the Rings). Unless the attack is much stronger than the defense, the result is a stale-mate. It is much easier to defend, than to attack.

In most cases such uses of magic have very simple, direct effects. The only point where we see a complicated effect attempted is when Gandalf tries to magically hold the door to the chamber of Mazarbul against the Balrog in Moria while the Fellowship flees. The time and effort taken up by this allows the Balrog to enter the chamber and thereby more easily direct its attack upon the wizard, which prevents him from completing the effect properly and results in the destruction of the room due to the sudden loss of energy.

The other form of magic in Middle-earth is focused on the use of artifacts, the effects of which are often more subtle than direct use of magic. Such items represent the only means of storing up a complicated effect for use in a hurry, but creating an item to carry out such an effect is even more difficult and energy-consuming than creating the effect. Hence magic items arc rare and precious.

Most magic items of any power were created during the First or Second ages, when there was more energy around. As these items were made and used by the Ainur (or those High Elves who had been taught by them), very few ever reached the shores of Middle-earth. With the destruction of Beleriand at the close of the First Age, only the Númenóreans, the Elves of Lindon and Hollin, the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm (and, of course, Sauron), would have retained such items in Middle-earth. Both the destruction of Hollin and the final downfall of Sauron generated widespread departure among the remaining Elves of Lindon, making magic items even more of a rarity. The Númenórean colonies, the few remaining Elven refuges and the Dwarven mansions would contain the last remnants of ancient magical power.

Although some might be disappointed at this insistence on the difficulty of finding interesting magic, that is the way Middle-earth was during the Third Age. AD&D-style parties, where no self-respecting 5th level character docs not have at least five magic items, would seriously distort a Third Age setting — even in the First Age, magic items were not held in numbers by any but the most powerful. Let us remember how sparingly Gandalf (one of the most powerful beings in Middle-earth during the Third Age) uses magic, even during the climax of his most active period during the War of the Ring.

Neither Gandalf nor Aragorn could confront Sauron directly; but as the heir of Isildur, Aragorn managed to wrest control of the Palantír. This brings me to the idea of compatible auras. Aragorn had more right to use the Palantír than Sauron did, and therefore Sauron’s strength in trying to stop him was lessened. To explain this, and the importance of blood-lines in Middle-earth, I will introduce the idea of magical signatures.

All magical power in Middle-earth is marked by the signature of its user. Magic items are marked by the signature of their maker, and it is easier for people with a similar signature to use an item. The signature of a blood relation is similar to one’s own signature, and the degree of similarity depends on the closeness of the relationship.

Residual similarity of signature may also be passed from mentor to pupil, and anyone who has been corrupted by Melkor or any of his servants can be spotted immediately from that signature. There are thus two parts to the signature. One part is inherited, and will remain the same in a given individual. The other part is learned, when one learns to use one’s energy. This second part changes, as the learning process never stops. For the Children of Ilúvatar, the use of magic must be learned from somewhere. In origin, all such knowledge comes from the Ainur, for whom the active use of energy is part and parcel to their created nature. The Noldor learned from the Ainur in Valinor, while Thingol’s court got its knowledge from Melian. Sorcerers obtained their knowledge from Melkor, Sauron, or one of their powerful servants. The Fathers of the Dwarves learned from Aulë.

The style of magic-use depends upon die ultimate source of the knowledge. Magical devices and runes, for example, are Aulëan magic, while shape-changing would presumably be of Yavannan origin. Magic that bestows far-sight depends on powers learned from or conferred by Manwë. These different knowledges can be used together — as with the Palantíri, which arc stones (Aulë) that bestow far sight (Manwë).

My preferred system would be based on a small number of basic effects which could be combined to produce more complicated magic. Developing a system that is consistent with all the uses of magic in Tolkien’s Middle –earth stories would be very difficult, but would in any event probably take one of two forms: 1) spell lists which list both the range of possible effects and their variable difficulty, or 2) categorizations of effects and guidelines as to how difficult they are to produce. The latter system requires more work for the GM, since anytime a player wants to use magic, the GM has to work out which category or categories the effect falls in, and where it lies on the difficulty scale. This idea comes from the Ars Magica system, which uses both methods.

This article gives the barest outlines of a magic system and is in need of further development. I hope that this will have generated some responses in this vein. Some areas needing further investigation include: the workings of runes, protection or anti-protection spells, inheritable enchantments and more on the difference between Elven-magic and the deceits of the Enemy.


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