Monday, August 8, 2011

Brief Gaming Thoughts on Re-Reading The Lord of the Rings

I've previously mentioned that I'm reading The Lord of the Rings aloud to my daughter, which has proven a very eye-opening experience. Doing so has occasioned two gaming-related thoughts in me, one of broader interest and one with regard to my own Dwimmermount campaign.

I'll start with the more specific one first. Right now, in our reading, we're at the point where the Company has entered Moria and are attempting to find their way out. Moria's frankly an amazing creation -- a vast mountain fortress fallen into ruin and now home to numerous fell monsters. Reading it I found myself realizing just how much Moria must have unconsciously influenced my conception of my Dwimmermount megadungeon. I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise. Moria's one of the better examples of something approximating a megadungeon in fantasy literature and I doubt there are very many old school gamers who aren't familiar with it. Still, when I began my campaign, I made an effort to keep it as Tolkien-free as possible. Looks like I failed.

That brings me to my broader thought. One of the "themes," if you will, of a goodly percentage of the old school renaissance is the embracing of early pulp fantasy and the downplaying, if not rejection, of both later fantasy more generally and Tolkien in particular. I still think immersing oneself in the books and authors of earlier eras is an important part of understanding where D&D came from. It's also a useful corrective to the popular notion that D&D is a game about playing "heroes" on an "epic quest." But I have to admit that, in recent days, I've started to fall in love again with Middle-earth and that's made me reconsider the hard line I've taken against including certain Tolkien-derived elements in my Dwimmermount campaign.

It'll be interesting to see what, if any, effect this has on the campaign as it further evolves through play.

34 comments:

  1. I don't have much of a manifesto when it comes to what influences I draw upon. I've even pinched at a coupe of ideas from Robert Jordan; although, I'm sure he pinched them from someone else first. It's not that I don't find the origins of the game interesting so much as I'm far more interested in where I want to go with it. I do, however, very much prefer to avoid world saving as a campaign emphasis. I've done it in the past and while it has an inherent charm, it also tends to deflate any further interest I might have in the setting.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have to ask, what aspects of Tolkien have you fought against all this time? What is it you were (whether perceived or real) afraid to let in that would make (possibly) someone go "Too Tolkien.. No donut for you"?

    I mean I have heard the same basic apprehensions before, and ever since I was a kid I had to ask..

    "You mean you play a version of D&D without Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, Dwarves, Elves, Dragons, Ghosts, and other 'odd' creatures? Those were all in Tolkien too"

    Just the weird thoughts that I thought of again while reading your post today.

    ReplyDelete
  3. @Ravenbow
    "You mean you play a version of D&D without Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, Dwarves, Elves, Dragons, Ghosts, and other 'odd' creatures? Those were all in Tolkien too"

    I do exactly this, by the way.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "You mean you play a version of D&D without Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, Dwarves, Elves, Dragons, Ghosts..."

    None of those so far...

    ReplyDelete
  5. I try to run high fantasy games, having discovered tolkien and the prydain chronicle immediately before I started playing D&D.
    I shy away from "heroes" on an "epic quest" and strive for "regular folk" whose problems and conflicts eventually draw them into an "epic quest" which in the end makes them "heroes", if, that is, they can rise to the occasion.

    At some point, to become a hero, a character has to make a choice. Choose to sacrifice on behalf of the greater good, to brave great dangers, to be heroic.

    Deciding to take up a sword does not make you a hero, it's what one does with the sword that makes him a hero.

    The idea is to inject the game with morality and grit while giving the players the opportunity to be heroes, should they choose to be.

    That said, my players have a tendency to take captives, question them, then murder them in horrible ways.

    Often heard from the DM is "And our brave heroes burn their defenseless captive alive."

    They shrug, and I shake my head.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Tolkien is dead! Long live Tolkien! I embraced the man's works long ago and never looked back. The Majestic Wilderlands owes a considerable debt to the man and his imagination.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Joe: So you are running and "evils" campaign, right? I mean, are these characters who started out with evil alignments, or are they other than evil and you let them slide rather than alignment shift?


    Not everything has to be about being heroic and on some heroic quest. But I totally and utterly reject this apparent popularity in the OSR of the idea that characters are generally these normal "every men" who decide to become disparate tomb robbers (at least for my 1st ed. I've run some White Box games where characters might seem more normal and run of the mill.) If a player wants this, fine, but it is not the norm. Even at 1st level I like characters to be a bit unique, above the norm, and capable than most people. And in Tolkien terms Frodo was a zero level putz, but all the other characters, including the other hobbits, seemed to be born for heroics once thrown into the grinder.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I have no issue with the good Professor, or even with many of his imitators. It's the Tolkien-worship and the hackneyed repetition of Tolkienesque tropes (some of which he did create, some of which exist only in the undiscerningly enthusiastic reader's head) that gets to me.

    I am a huge, huge fan of Tolkien, but while people mangle his work to reassemble it, Frankenstein-like, as "new" fantasy books and games (made of the same substance, but lacking the grace and unity of the original), the audience for giants like Jack Vance, Clark Ashton Smith and Abraham Merritt dwindles smaller with every passing day.

    ReplyDelete
  9. So all these times when they've murdered their captives, nobody's ever seen what's going on or found the remains afterward? No rogue party on the run from CSI: Fantasyland and the relentless Wizard Constables?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Moria has always been a point of fascination for me in Tolkien's LOTR. The scale of the thing boggled my young mind, and I always wondered about all those pathways not taken in an effort to get out safely on the other side.

    I think this is why I posted the scanned maps from that holy grail of MERP modules: Moria. I mean not only did it have the lair of the Balrog, it had the Endless Stair too!

    Of course, I only realized muuuuuuch later it might not be canon. But it was one of those things that really triggered a young boy's sense of wonder.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Tolkien is inextricably tied to D&D (and, by the way, to much of the FRP). The original creators of D&D knew their Tolkien, like most of the current members of the hobby. I think the downplay of Tolkien has to do more with his imitators and the brandification of his tropes.
    "High Fantasy" is almost a derogative term those days, but Tolkien is not high fantasy, realy: to call "The lord of the rings" high fantasy is like call "The Illiad" peplum. Eddings, Donaldson, Weis&Hickman, Brooks, Jordan and others took the lessons learned from Tolkien and set up the High Fantasy, but the Professor is another thing.
    I think the FRP hobby has much to gain from a return to a True Tolkien.

    ReplyDelete
  12. It's an interesting coincidence (and I'm not implying it is anything else) that you post this on your blog at the same time one of the hot topics on rpg.net is the new One Ring RPG.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Except Moria isnt a Mountain Fortress. Its a Mine (Mines of Moria). And when a Brit writes about mines he is thinking Coal Mines. A Sea of in situ Columns separating the five foot high ceiling from the Floor. An Underworld. Sure there are chambers where the miners rest and live and they have narrow tunnels linking them to the surface, and most likely there are 'caverns measureless to man' (mostly vertical) down there as well. Subsidence collapses and fissures. All the Horror of a Coal Mine that might just as well be bellow the sea bed.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Part of the downplaying of Tolkien I think comes from the fact that Gygax himself downplayed Tolkien, aside from a few superficial elements. However, Arneson mentions Mordor being just off the map in the First Fantasy Campaign and includes red eye, white hand and "isengarder" orcs. he clearly was a Tolkien fan even if Gary was not which may explain the Tolkien influence on OD&D more than anything else.

    Then of course you have other material like the Judges Guild product Verbosh which mentions Noldor Elves on numerous occasions. Theres a reason the Wilderlands are called the Wilderlands.

    For my part I think Tolkien makes excellent fodder for D&D as long as you're looking at the Hobbit. It's about a bunch of greedy treasure hunters who basically experience a number of random encounters. Sounds like D&D to me.

    Lord of the Rings can certainly inspire a campaign, but the motivations of the characters an the actions they take are very different than the ones a typical D&D party would.

    ReplyDelete
  15. @yellowdingo -- well, the MERP map did structure the levels of the mine as the primary structure. :D But didn't they also live there as well, and therefore have to fortify themselves and have sources of food and water?

    Too bad the Balrog was inside the 'defenses' when they delved too deep...

    ReplyDelete
  16. @Alex 'Ka-Blog' Osias: I tell you what, if your Mines of Moria Maps can tell you the thickness of the ceiling to the floor above, stuff it in the following Formula and calculate which parts will have collapsed.

    width of lower cave divided by thickness of ceiling equals %Subsidence.

    70% means large cracks in ceiling leak water from upper levels.
    100% means Ceiling Collapsed and lower level is rubble filled.


    Let us know what your mine looks like now.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I think the Tolkien backlash has been overdone as well. I prefer a Howard or Leiber style game for a model of "how to play" but for how the world works etc. I think Tolkien does just fine.

    @Evan - The Hobbit: it's not just greed, it's a revenge story too. "He took our home and killed our family and now hw's gonna pay".

    ReplyDelete
  18. @ Blacksteel

    True enough, but it's definitely not an altruistic save the world kinda story.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I'd argue that the world that Tolkein produced is eminently suitable for Old School gaming. However the idea of the epic quest where the player character party is the centre of everything that happens, isn't, and belongs properly to the New School (especially if it is effectively impossible for the party to fail*).

    [* Of course it may not be the same PCs that started the adventure, but the players will eventually win.]

    ReplyDelete
  20. 'That said, my players have a tendency to take captives, question them, then murder them in horrible ways.

    Often heard from the DM is "And our brave heroes burn their defenseless captive alive."'

    The dungeon crawl environment is exceedingly unforgiving. The nature of the game does not allow many rational modes of inquiry. The player-characters have a high mortality rate. The DM is in a fundamentally asymmetrical power relationship to the PCs.

    When I am a player, I often end up doing rational things that DMs will call inhumane. If DMs want humane play, they should seriously consider the nature of the game. For one thing, they should set a house rule at the beginning of the campaign that says, "Players who kill or torture defenseless prisoners will lose experience points."

    For that matter, you could establish some set of laws that PCs have to follow when they take prisoners. E.g. waterboarding is okay, hot irons are not, or something like that.

    I've gotten in trouble for ham-stringing prisoners to prevent them from running, even though the story in question had abundant magical healing that could heal such a small wound as soon as the prisoners were released.

    ReplyDelete
  21. "When I am a player, I often end up doing rational things that DMs will call inhumane."

    That's what's known as "evil" -- acting rationally without any moral restraint.


    "The dungeon crawl environment is exceedingly unforgiving. The nature of the game does not allow many rational modes of inquiry. The player-characters have a high mortality rate. The DM is in a fundamentally asymmetrical power relationship to the PCs...If DMs want humane play, they should seriously consider the nature of the game. For one thing, they should set a house rule at the beginning of the campaign that says, 'Players who kill or torture defenseless prisoners will lose experience points.' For that matter, you could establish some set of laws that PCs have to follow when they take prisoners. E.g. waterboarding is okay, hot irons are not, or something like that. I've gotten in trouble for ham-stringing prisoners to prevent them from running, even though the story in question had abundant magical healing that could heal such a small wound as soon as the prisoners were released."

    Wow. So many of the usual excuses for evil behavior all in one place...

    'I was in a very difficult situation, so I had to.'

    'There was no other choice.'

    'If I didn't, I might've died.'

    'The situation was unfair.'

    'It was somebody else's fault.'

    'There was no reward for doing the right thing.'

    'I didn't know it was wrong.'

    'It wasn't so bad.'

    ReplyDelete
  22. Novice here. But one of the most interesting things to hit me when I started playing D&D with my boys was the fact that some folks really seemed to downplay any real Tolkien influence. That seems to come, in part, because Gygax appeared to go out of his way to do the same.

    Though I don't consider myself an RPG scholar by any means, I can't help but think that's a bit of a stretch. Just looking at the old time AD&D works, Tolkien seems to loom large. Not that other authors don't, it's just that one-on-one, Tolkien is right up there.

    Some of it seems to be the result of pitting Tolkien against, well, everyone else. Who was a bigger influence, Tolkien or the rest of the fantasy world? That's like saying who was more influential in popular music, the Beatles or everyone else? Well, that would be everyone else. But one-on-one, the Beatles cast a pretty big shadow.

    Likewise, I agree with Evan above. Many point out the quest to save the world of LoTR. But we can't forget the Hobbit. Combine the multi-racial party of LoTR with 'band of adventurers on a grand adventure to encounter many traps and dangers to get revenge and get treasure', and you pretty well have a D&D game right there.

    Again, not to say the other authors often mentioned weren't influential in their own ways, or that they don't share the stage with Tolkien on their own terms. It's just I can't see the game without the shadow of Tolkien cast across the pages.

    And of course in the end the creation of D&D was the result of more than just Gygax, and many others appeared to embrace Tolkien just the same, if not more (at least, if Gygax was really spot on with his memories, someone must have embraced Tolkien beyond cheap marketing ploys). At least that's what I've come out of it seeing.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I've never tried to fight or deny the strong influence Tolkien has exerted on my own dungeon design ideas. As you say, Moria is one of the greatest "dungeons" in all fantasy literature -- and Shelob's cave later in the trilogy is pretty spooky as well.

    ReplyDelete
  24. @yellowdingo: Oooh! Cool formula.

    Well, no direct measurements between the hallways but there's a scale I think of 1/8" = 125 feet.

    The text in the module says that the width of the widest avenues in the city of Moria is 21 feet.

    The thinnest distance between avenues on the map that I can see is around 60 feet.

    21 feet / 60 feet = 35% Subsidence

    I'll try to find thinner areas if I can. But for the major areas and galleries I don't think any approach 60%, unless my math is wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I've been re-reading the old "Sorcerer's Scroll" editorials from Gygax, and there is a lot of downplaying of Tolkien in them. I don't think it's antipathy to Tolkien, though, rather antipathy to an endless barrage of letters saying "D&D does X, Tolkien says Y, so D&D is doing it wrong." Nothing annoys an author more than that kind of complaint.

    But early D&D was as much Tolkien as Fritz Leiber and REH and Moorcock. It's just annoying when you "I have elves like this" and someone says "But Galadriel wasn't like that, so you're wrong." :)

    ReplyDelete
  26. Yeah I can definitely understand the efforts G.G. may have made to try and distance the game from Tolkien. No matter how heavily they may have been influenced by JRRT when they designed the game, its still a game and a seperate entity from any specific influences and it would soon get quite annoying to constantly have to explain why the game does things differently. I mean even if they set out to actually recreate LOTR in game form, they may simply have found through play that other modes of play were simply more fun and worked better...

    ReplyDelete
  27. @Brunomac

    Really, what I go for is "plowshares to swords".

    It's generally understood that lvl 1 characters have had some kind of training, more than your average cobbler, to be sure, but I don't see player characters as "supermen".
    The idea being that if the aforementioned cobbler one day got a wild hare up his ass and picked up a sword he could, with a little luck, become a mighty hero.

    Time and time again, I've reminded players that they are not special. At least at level one.

    My characters are between lvls 5 and 7 now, and are only half way through the Temple of Elemental Evil. They are certainly among the most powerful mortals in their kingdom, but they didn't get that way through blood, sweat, and tears.

    And before they ever picked up a sword or crafted a spell, they were just folk.

    Point being, that PC's become heroes through choice and action, not by virtue of being PC's.

    Also, starting your characters off at lvl 0 is a blast. Facing down a pack of hungry goblins at lvl 1 is already dangerous and exciting, but imagine facing them with a kitchen knife and only the vaguest idea of how to use it. Choosing a class becomes a quest in itself.

    What I call "soft character development" is the juice of RPGs, to me. The relationships that develop between characters, the development of the characters themselves, and the arch of the story are what have kept me coming back to the table.

    That and the sheer joy of killing hill giants with a single backstab.

    ReplyDelete
  28. I think there's no question that Tolkien was an influence on D&D. The difference is that for them, Tolkien was _one_ influence of many -- a big one, sure, but probably no bigger than Lieber, Howard or Vance. A lot of those who took up the game in the 80s, were almost exclusively influenced by Tolkien and his imitators.

    There were, of course, also a number of legal reasons why Gary and TSR distanced themselves from Tolkien.

    ReplyDelete
  29. aharshDM: Naw, I'll never really get the "zero level 1st game" of a campaign, or other efforts to downplay PC strengths. IMHO life is too short to sit at a table for hourse playing a character who is just "adaquate" or less.

    But DM's who want to impose this zero level thing (I cannot imagine many players are into that...I know you'll have exceptions and your players say "it's great," but that would not be the norm) are just trying to knock fighters down a notch, I think. They realize a 1st level fighter is going to have twice or more the hp of Joe Farmer out in the fields, and this is somehow too much power. Baloney. A house wife facing down a goblin with a kitchen knife does not sound like fun gaming to me. But to each his own really.

    ReplyDelete
  30. @Alex 'Ka-Blog' Osias: Oops. Sorry, Formula Error Alex.

    Cross Sectional Width of Lower Cave divided by Thickness of ceiling to next floor up equals Subsidence number.

    The Percentage of Subsidence is a range based on stone type:
    And it began failing at 10% {0.1-0.5}, and Failed at 100%{1.2-1.4}

    Basically you can take your Subsidence number and multiply by one hundred to get a percentage.

    ReplyDelete
  31. @Matthew Johnson

    Couldn't agree more with everything you said.

    I came to D&D in the mid to late 80s, as did many of the people I still game with. Most of us did see it as 'Lord of the Rings: the rpg'.

    Only later did I find the other literary sources that influenced the game.

    I think that in stressing the importance of the lesser known authors whose influence is just as vital as Tolkien, it is easy to understate the influence Tolkien had on D&D.

    ReplyDelete
  32. @yellowdingo: I figured it'd be a bit more complex but at least I have a term to Google and find out more.

    I'd always vaguely wondered how to deal with %chances for cave-ins given different types of stone and reinforced vs. unreinforced passageways.

    I think we're (read: I am) drifting away more than a bit from the post topic so... Yeah. LOTR is awesome.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Indeed, but you can tell the difference between the information sources the designer of a Dungeon had access to - those who slap together any old thing lack fundamental real world knowledge.

    ReplyDelete
  34. "those who slap together any old thing lack fundamental real world knowledge"

    you say that like its a bad thing. :D

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.