You are here

A Personal Tolkien

The topic of playing in Big Settings has been on my mind. I decided to dig up some 10 year old notes from my favorite Burning Wheel game, which was set in Middle Earth.

When we decided to play in Middle Earth, I knew I had to narrow down what sources I was using. I decided not to use any roleplaying specific material, and went straight to the books. My primary texts were The Lord of the Rings and The Atlas of Middle Earth. I also read some old mythology (The Story of Kullervo, Beowulf and History of the Kings of Britain), and did research into the Iron Age Germanic people for a bit of “authenticity”.

The Burning of Framsburg

Do you know the tale of Fram? Well, it’s okay if you don't. The story of Fram is only one small paragraph from the appendices in The Return of the King. I’ll summarize, though you can read it in Part II of Appendix A about 5 paragraphs in. Tolkien is a far better writer than myself.

Fram was The Chieftain of the Eotheod, the ancestors of the Rohirrim. He slew a dragon, and feuded with dwarves over who had claim over the treasure. Fram wouldn’t give the dwarves anything, instead he sent the dwarven king a necklace made of the dragon’s teeth. He told the King “Jewels such as these you will not match in your treasures, for they are hard to come by.” This is followed by “It is said the dwarves slew Fram for the insult.” Then there is a gap of 500 years until the Eotheod fully migrate to Rohan. 

This was the perfect place and time to explore Middle Earth. We had a location, up north to the east of Angmar and west of Mirkwood. Most importantly I had the seed of a situation from one sentence.

It is said the dwarves slew Fram for the insult

I thought, how would the Eotheod react to this? Their leader is dead. Did the dwarves slay Fram? If they did, is there more to it? Well we decided to find out.

The dwarves did slay Fram, but he laid the challenge himself.

  • The Eotheod were nearly plunged into a civil war because Fram had no clear heir.
  • The sword, Anguirel, was in the dragon’s horde. The blade corrupted the treasure and all who possess it.
  • A disgraced family (who tried to start the civil war) decided to align themselves with the Witch King, and lay siege to Framsburg.
  • The game ended with a dark elf stealing Anguirel, after the siege, and escaping to Mirkwood. 

What I loved about playing in Middle Earth was the amount of unanswered questions and subjective points of view (The Lord of the Rings is framed as a translation of ancient texts). We had so much wiggle room to play with, while still being true to the themes and motifs of Tolkien without slavishly playing within the lines. Hell, I found out Tolkien himself didn’t even do that. He revised his stories (famously re-wrote a chapter of the Hobbit post-publication to tie into Lord of the Rings better), wrote contradictory accounts and had fun doing it. So, why shouldn’t we also do the same?

By the end, the Middle Earth we made was equal parts Tolkien, Medieval Legends, and Robert E Howard. It is our own personal Middle Earth! I had so much fun reading over my old notes, and going through the character sheets. I want to pick up the game where we left off, and find out what happens next!

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Sean_RDP's picture

Glad to see I am not the only one who owns a copy of The Story of Kullervo

When we decided to play in Middle Earth, I knew I had to narrow down what sources I was using. I decided not to use any roleplaying specific material, and went straight to the books. My primary texts were The Lord of the Rings and The Atlas of Middle Earth. I also read some old mythology (The Story of Kullervo, Beowulf and History of the Kings of Britain), and did research into the Iron Age Germanic people for a bit of “authenticity”

Somehow without meaning to, I have collected a copy of most(all?) the various rpgs dealing with Middle Earth or The Lord of the Rings, including the latest version of The One Ring. It is varying quality and tone, and comes packaged with systems that can be challenging to learn. Although Adventures in Middle Earth might be that exception. But given the source material you cited, it seems obvious that you would not take advantage of any of it. 

Was the choice to play in Middle Earth using Burning Wheel a decision that came together at once, or was the desire to use one or other the first decision? Did you have Burning Wheel in hand and just hunted around for a setting or was Middle Earth the first choice and system second? I am curious about the chicken and egg here.

JC's picture

Glad to see I am not the only one who owns a copy of The Story of Kullervo

I learned about Kullervo after reading The Children of Hurin, which has sections that are *heavily* inspired by the story.  Actually, what's funny, as a kid I was reading Tolkien, Biblical, Arthurian and Greek mythology at the same time. So to me, Tolkien is part of that tradition of fantasy. I didn’t start reading post-Tolkien fantasy fiction until after I started playing Dungeons & Dragons (I grew out of modern "Tolkien-esque" fantasy very quickly).

Was the choice to play in Middle Earth using Burning Wheel a decision that came together at once, or was the desire to use one or other the first decision? Did you have Burning Wheel in hand and just hunted around for a setting or was Middle Earth the first choice and system second? I am curious about the chicken and egg here.

We wanted to play a fantasy game that felt grounded in our history, but not strictly historical. After some discussion, we narrowed it down to between The Burning Wheel, and King Arthur Pendragon. I had the idea/pipe dream of wanting to run The Great Pendragon Campaign someday, so I voted that one down.

The Burning Wheel felt right for what we wanted to do. The idea of playing in Middle Earth came up when I mentioned how the Elves in Burning Wheel are inspired by Silmarillion. One thing led to another, I began to flip through the appendices, looking for big gaps in the timeline and it all fell into place.

noah's picture

JC, I blame your passionate critique of RQG for opening some emotional floodgates for me. Your words at that post and here shook loose a couple of thoughts regarding The Lord of the Rings, and I wanted to share them: I read Tolkien’s trilogy for the first time this year. It was one of the best reading experiences of my life: rich, surprising, wondrous, heart-wrenching, frustrating, and exceeding my frustrations and expectations at every turn.

To long-time lovers of Tolkien’s work, this probably verges on the childish, but: I have felt sharp and abiding grief at the spectacle of one of our world’s closer approximations of Mordor churning out obscenely expensive episodes of The Rings of Power.  

I don’t mean to imply that that this is even close to the top of the list of grievous things occurring in the world — just one that slipped past my emotional armor.

However, your post here slipped past my emotional armor too. Reading it reminded me that our rough little art form can still make meaningful stories without being co-opted by the agendas of billionaires. Fuck Amazon. Long live roleplayers and gardeners and art.

Davos's picture

Long live the Gardeners !

 

Mellon.

Hans's picture

Nothing large to add to the conversation, but I trust an emphatic "Yes!" will not go unappreciated.

A large part of my conceptual journey with regards to roleplaying over the past thirteen-fourteen years has been the shift in viewing design as the art of the thing to viewing play, "our rough little art form", as the heart of the art of the thing. Not to denigrate those players who, paraphrasing Ron, have the personality disorder that causes them to design. ;)

JC's picture

However, your post here slipped past my emotional armor too. Reading it reminded me that our rough little art form can still make meaningful stories without being co-opted by the agendas of billionaires. Fuck Amazon. Long live roleplayers and gardeners and art.

Taking a slick pop song and doing a raw garage band cover is how I'm beginning to view my successful games while playing with the milieu of an pre-authored work. Be sincere, be flippant, it is your band's song now.

Add new comment