Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Thoughts on a Middle Earth Campaign

Barking Alien had a good post on Monday here, particularly the part about playing a game in someone else's universe - it's worth a read

I like the closed vs. open description, that's not a bad way to visualize it. I tend to think of it as a question of whether I can work within the movie/show/book or do I have to work around it?  Star Trek is one I can work within because there are other interesting things going on in parallel with whatever show or movie you're watching - the rest of the universe is shown, not just mentioned and the plot of the typical show or movie doesn't fundamentally change the universe. It's hard to define in specifics but LOTR in contrast, is one where I feel like I would have to work around the main story because the plot does drastically change the environment.

In the specific case of LOTR I think my best option for running a middle earth game would be to set it quite a while after the end of the trilogy. At some point within 100 years or so the wizards are gone, most of the elves are gone, and the fellowship is all gone. Set it in the time of Aragorn's son's first few years and there's a new feeling in the world and with the passing of the heroes of the third age it's time for a new generation (cue theme music). There are still plenty of nasties in the world and there are plenty of good normal folk threatened by them - who's going to stand between that lingering darkness and the innocent and defenseless? Beyond the orcs and trolls there is old magic to be rediscovered and old cities of dwarves and men and elves to be reclaimed. It's a time of expansion, rediscovery, exploration, and pushing back the frontiers!

This approach lets you use all of the background material and lore and the races and cultures of middle earth without that feeling of playing second fiddle to the main story. I think "what happens next" is a nice way to make all of that relevant but not confining. Plus it's customizable to taste - want more connections with the big story? Set it in the later years of Aragorn's reign, make sure Gimil is still alive and Legolas is still around and maybe a couple of the elderly hobbits are still upright. Regardless, Treebeard and TOm Bombadil are going to be present for quite a while so even if you go later they can still provide a link.

With a theme of exploration, rediscovery, and a crusade against evil you have a reason to have adventures all over the map, moving through familiar areas as you do so. A nice range of character motivations fits in here from curiousity or restlessness to greed or vengeance against those orcs that wiped out your family. The type of adventures could include anything from dungeon crawls to cross-country pursuits to discovering and hunting down a dragon that's come down out of the north.

So that's my best take on how to make a LOTR game that would work for me. I realize you aren't going to be rubbing elbows with Frodo or Boromir, but for me that's not the attraction of the world anyway. I can see the armchair Tolkien scholar having some problems with it, but they're going to have problems with pretty much any game unless they can accept some compromises, and there's really only one big compromise here; Everything you know is in the past. Once you can get past that, then it seems like we could have some fun with this.


Martin R. Thomas said...

Great post with good ideas on what can (and can't) work in a Middle Earth campaign.

The longest campaign I've ever played in was a 9+ year 3E/3.5 campaign set in Middle Earth 1000 years after the War of the Ring. What was really fascinating is that the DM never told us we were in Middle Earth and it honestly took us about 3 years of play time to figure it out.

We started out in the far East of Middle Earth, which is never really explained by Tolkien, so that left a lot of room for the DM to be creative.

There were two warring kingdoms in the East run by two wizards who hated each other. One had troops dressed in dark blue, and the other favored a lighter blue color. Our country was sort of caught in the middle. Later on, when we figured out where we were, we learned that these two countries were ruled by the two Blue Wizards, mentioned by Tolkien in a sort of throw-away line "the two blue wizards went to the East." Tolkien tells us specifically what happened to Saruman and Gandalf, but of Rhadagast he only says that he kind of goes off into the wild and "goes native." And then with the two blue wizards, he just said that they went to the East. Our DM extrapolated from what had happened to Saruman and decided that the wizards would eventually realize that they should lord themselves over the populations of the East in a sort of "friendly despotism" but they eventually go mad with power.

There were so many little things like this - this that Tolkien introduced in the LOTR trilogy (and in the Hobbit and Silmarillion), but he never ties up the loose ends. Our whole campaign was designed around some of those.

The line "Morgoth will stay in chain as long as the gods sit in Valar" was a HUGE plot-point of the campaign.

I'll be blogging a little about the campaign over at Daddy Rolled a 1 over the next few weeks/months if you want to take a look.

Blacksteel said...

Thanks MT - I will be checking out the blog because I am curious about some things. Was it otherwise a straight-up 3E game?

I see your DM used a far greater time jump than I was thinking, but that works too. Going off the map and developing the hanging hint like that is something I heartily endorse! Between those three choices I can see why it took you some time to realize it was a Middle Earth campaign.