I’m Tolkien Situation Here

A Personal Tolkien https://adeptplay.com/2022/11/11/personal-tolkien/

The Dwarf Rings https://adeptplay.com/2022/07/01/dwarf-rings-adventures-middle-earth-5e/

It comes on the heels of losing at least one of my Lord of Rings rpg books and at least one or two of the novels to the cruelty of a cold snap and broken sprinkler pipe that brings us again to Middle Earth and role-playing. The One Ring rpg, call it the newest edition of that specific iteration, is what is on the table and while I do not have a ton of experience with it yet, I have read through the system and done some actual play.

General Impressions

My impression of TOR is that it is a game that wants to invite you to sit down for a long talk. While I have run just two sessions, neither was meant to be a one-shot. This makes it difficult to sell the game to anyone in a short time as its meant to include several phases of play. There is a degree of commitment here that needs to be acknowledged if you want to get the full effect.

If we are looking at its approach to Tolkien, I would say it draws heavily from the cinematic interpretations, but that is a guess. I have strong opinions about what interpretations of the original material I prefer, but this still works for me because focus is on the fellowship of characters. The developers have their own opinions of course and a cinematic approach likely would appeal to the more casual Tolkien fan.

What Caught My Eye

Each session starts with the Loremaster presenting
the current situation to the players. This usually
sets a date or time of the year (when), a location (where),
and defines an introductory situation (what) that should
include information that allows for the involvement of the
Company (why).

The above is quoted from the Adventuring Phase portion of the book and as you can imagine this intrigued me. Like many games, the follow through on Situation building can be hit or miss. There is not a ton of direct follow through, though the text does speak about various elements of what a Loremaster is and does. Most of it focuses on scenes and how to effectively manage them, as opposed to a wider situation.

The quick and easy answer to such concerns is that ‘there
is no such thing as an established Tolkien canon’; however, it
is interesting to delve a little further into the subject, because a Loremaster
can learn a great deal from tackling this apparently
insurmountable obstacle.

This is another part of the text that intrigued me, because this point of view has been brought up in previous discussions. I would suggest this is the default POV for The One Ring. Instead of retracing the steps of canon, the LM is encouraged to move away from that.

Actual Play

But how does it play? There is a lot to juggle here and the game, much like Adventures in Middle Earth and the newer Lord of the Rings rpg (also from the same developers and Fria Ligan) taps into that loss of humanity as the primary way to harm a character. The game centers around adventuring and fellowship phases. It is not one big quest, but smaller quests against the Shadow that slowly wear a character down and destroying them from the inside.

In both cases the sessions were meant to start longer campaigns and for reasons, they did not. I will say that some players did feel that the game demanded more of their time or emotional commitment than they expected. This might deter some players and GMs.

In the first game, an early version of my Dwarf Rings game where the players, only one an actual dwarf, headed east looking for he Seven or at least the ones that survived. The three players engaged with the system, but only one of them really dived in. The others certainly grok’d play, but didn’t use the system much to push forward any agenda they had.

The second game, which I am refining and want to try again, is my King’s of the East idea, where the players are the children of Sauron’s allies, doing their Dark Lord’s bidding. This one derailed a bit into enjoying the idea of being the bad guys, which they were in abandon. But that ambition to do bad may have clashed with the text a bit, as The One Ring is undoubtedly a game about heroes.

I would not bust out TOR as a casual game night or even Actual Play one-shot. It needs more than that. I want to see how the fellowship phase handles aging characters and compare it to something like Pendragon.


11 responses to “I’m Tolkien Situation Here”

  1. I’ve had a read at my edition of TOR and had similar impressions as you, especially related to the lack of adherence to literary themes in favour of the cinematic approach. It’s definitely intriguing.

    I’ve often doubted if it’s possible to make a roleplaying game that respects Tolkien’s literary themes, without it requiring all participants to be Roman Catholic. The entire idea of _providence_ and _eucatastrophe_ are bonkers in the space of regular roleplaying design and extremely difficult to transfer in a form that also preserves people’s agency.

    I think putting Tolkien’s storytelling in sort of a “Story Circle” type diagram and turning that into game rules is probably the worst idea. The right way would be trying to work out his mindset as we was writing, when it wasn’t yet finished, and try to transfer that in roleplaying game form.

    A lot of people misunderstand LotR as superficially being about good triumphing over evil, while it’s actually about evil always winning in the long run, and it being worth to fight for good despite that, especially when you know you can’t win. LotR’s good side wins in the end, at great cost, only because Eru Iluvatar (literally God) intervened with the _eucatastrophe_, using evil (Gollum) for good’s end, so that evil’s victory could be stalled a bit longer. This is also why Tolkien couldn’t bring himself to write any sequel — he knew it would be way too dark in tone.

    So I think, no God being at the table — I would find a GM playing Eru to be beyond offensive — that only God could make the good side win. Through dice rolls. So for a game to properly relay this it must have as a certainty that evil will prevail in the end — somewhere in the future, maybe now and maybe far away. And all that good people can do is stall it for a little longer and help each other through it.

    For Tolkien, that was the nature of heroism.

    • Ok, so let’s distinguish a couple of things: there’s whatever Tolkien had in mind when he wrote the LOTR (which from his writings is fairly ambiguous; he’s written that he despised adding messages to fiction, preferring that it be generally applicable rather than mean one thing, but he’s also said the message is essentially Christian, and he also mentioned that he didn’t know what would happen next as he wrote), and there’s how readers have interpreted his writings. I’m much more interested in the latter than the former. I don’t see why a game should try to match the particular interpretation you’re giving.

    • Claudio, you’re lecturing. Please stop that.

      If you’re presenting your view as a shared-fun thing to stand next to Sean’s, that’s fine. But that isn’t what you wrote.

    • Probably I didn’t express myself well.

      I’m trying to pose the question, and work through the beginning of an answer: can we turn this into a shared-fun thing?

      I’ll try later with different words.

    • Let me respond with what I had in mind when I originally asked you to put your comments from discord on the post. I appreciate that you did that.

      My answer to what I think is being asked is that I generally set aside the Catholicism. Not in a dismissive way but acknowledging that most players want to focus on heroics. Or eating if they are playing Hobbits. 🙂

      My focus then shifts to the source material, not Tolkien’s work but the sources he borrowed from. Specifically the Kalevala and Beowulf. The idea of the epic poem is important to tLotR, at least in my opinion. And the ending of both, from my readings, is not happy or sad, but melancholy. And I think it works because the epic poem provides great examples of structure, pace, and tone.

  2. Sean, I’m curious how you found the mechanics. How did the combat work for you, did the lack of initiative rules pose an issue, or was it good? Did players make use of the stances in interesting tactical ways?

    Also, how did the shadow/corruption rules make themselves felt? Or does that only play a role over a greater number of sessions?

    • Let me answer the last one first. In neither case did the rules make themselves felt except for an acknowledgement that certain actions caused corruption. We noted them but since we did not continue long term in either case, they did not have much affect on play.

      Combat worked fine and the lack of initiative was not an issue. There was some confusion over stances and lots of looking to the book for the few fights. But overall players (and me) picked it up quickly. The ranged combat stance provided a lot of conversation.

  3. Situation indeed: not setting, after all. “Situation” refers to the locations (or mindscapes, or past/future, whatever) which may be reached and acted in or upon during play. If we’re playing, then we’re in a scene – a little visible unit within, and part of, the situation. Things may be happening concurrently outside of that scene, still in the situation, and those things are relevant to some upcoming scene. What happens in our scene may affect and change things we do not immediately see, out there in the rest of the situation.

    Here, you’ve named the preparatory starting point: when + where + what + why. However, preparation isn’t play. It’s not situation until we start acting in and upon it, and player-characters are exactly parts of the situation as much as anything this Loremaster person is talking about.

    So … regarding the second play-experience you’ve mentioned (because you found it more compelling), what was this? Never mind your preparation as such, I’m talking about once play began: what aspects of your preparation appeared relatively early, what did player-characters do during the opening scenes of play, what might one fairly say “happened” as play continued which brought more situation into view, or changed anything in it?

    • The characters had a visit with the Mouth of Sauron and that spawned push back on why they should do anything for the Dark Lord who has done nothing for them specifically. I had not anticipated this response and it changed the tone of play. One character thought this was a losing bargain, considering the fate of the Nazgul. In response, Sauron provided them each a vision of a possible future that (I hoped) touched on their personal ambitions. I integrated some of reveals that I had planned on revealing later and this wetted their appetites.

      But as the session progressed they would side track to commit evil whenever they could and so we did not get far. After the session we did discuss that aspect of play and I think we were in a good place, but there was never a session 2.

  4. The One Ring is a fascinating game to me. I am going to set aside the “how close is it to Tolkien” because there isn’t one answer there, The One Ring is but one view point which I both find intriguing and also not 100% to my taste.

    As Sean noticed – The One Ring is about playing Heroes, but more importantly the long-term toll of heroism. I want to see how The Shadow mechanic is expressed over a campaign. Each character has a Shadow Path they walk down, which creates the potential for player characters more in the mold of the flawed heroes like Turin Turambar or Boromir.

    This means The Company/Fellowship shares emotional vulnerabilities which I find very compelling to explore (of note is the ability to form asymmetrical relationships with a members of your company). The way to keep *together* and fighting, even for one more battle, is through friendship.

    While, as a player, I would love to experience this game. It didn’t inspire me as a GM. I don’t think a party of adventurers is how I want to re-visit Middle Earth from the GM-side of the screen. I’d want to dig into Tolkien’s inspiration from folk lore and legends bringing different parts of those in and some of my own bullshit too, and also narrow down my focus to a community rather than an adventure.

    (Side Note: The game’s rules for composing poetry and songs about your journeys is so so cool.)

    • The game does focus on the adventure side quite heavily, but that it has a Fellowship phase at all had me interested. In a community focused game, I would say reversing the emphasis of the phases might provide some satisfying play.

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