The Tolkien Professor and My Tolkien Game

Sill working on Servants of the Secret Fire, my slow-burn Middle-Earth tabletop rpg project – more lately than usual because I have recently discovered The Tolkien Professor. The Tolkien Professor is Doctor Corey Olsen of Washington College in Maryland. He is a scholar of medieval literature who teaches courses on, among other things, all of Tolkien’s works. He also posts his class lectures to his website and via iTunes, as well as supplemental lectures on Tolkien and his sub-creation Middle-Earth.

Unless you are lobotomized, this stuff is fascinating, and I am assuming that anyone besides Google reading this blog is likely at least a little bit interested in Tolkien and his works. I can easily recommend any of the supplemental lectures Dr. Olsen has posted as a starting-point, since his class lectures aren’t as interesting if you aren’t reading the books as you follow along, or don’t have them fresh in your memory.
Now back to thinking about what to do with a Middle-Earth rpg with no licence, original artwork, budget or collaborators.

6 thoughts on “The Tolkien Professor and My Tolkien Game

  1. Just curious what you want out of the RPG. I know you said you wanted the “experience of reading stories of Middle Earth” but what exactly does that mean? Are you looking for a mechanic that sets up the interpersonal interactions or combat style your looking for? Did you feel the previous games didn't have the right mix of narrative free flow to crunch? Where there just scenes from the books you felt like you couldn't accomplish with the present systems?


  2. All good questions. I'm working on what that means, exactly, but some of my thoughts:

    There are a few published games that I need to compare anything I do to. Those are: Middle-Earth Roleplaying (MERP), Codex's LOTRRPG, and Burning Wheel. I suppose I would add to that list the Mouse Guard hack Realm Guard that I recently became aware of.

    MERP was of course just Rolemaster with some very, very good setting and adventure supplements. There as nothing about the system itself that was anything like Tolkien's books as opposed to any other generic fantasy setting.

    Codex's game, now also out of print and defunct, was another of a billion d20 clones, with the innovation of using 2d6 instead of a d20.

    Burning Wheel is by far the best published Middle-Earth RPG, but even BW has more in it that is Luke Crane than Tolkien. That is a good thing much of the time, but not what I'm looking for.

    None of those games provide the kind of character arcs that exist in Tolkien's stories; BW gets closest with the emotional attributes like Greed and Grief and Hatred.

    None of them deal with the movement of a character from hope to despair to reckless courage (ex: Theoden charging the Pelennor Fields; Eomer in the battle before the Black Gate, Sam in Cirith Ungol).

    None of them deal with things like “chance meetings” and twists of fate that are so central to almost all of Tolkien's stories.

    None of them have any mechanic around “eucatastrophe”.

    None of them are able to retain the 'imbalance' between the various races while still providing a good gaming experience – with, again, the exception of Burning Wheel, depending on how you run it.

    So those are some things I'm trying to build into the game's mechanics: 1. character arcs that support characters like Pippin, who change drastically, and Legolas, who changes only in subtle intrapersonal ways.
    2. Change meetings and twists of fate
    3. Characters' emotional movement through hope, despair and reckless courage (or getting stuck in despair like Saruman or Denethor)
    4. Imbalance that is still fun for all players in, for example, the Fellowship – so Legolas' player and Pippin's player both enjoy a game session.


  3. Well I'll start with saying a lot of what your looking for sounds to me like it's got to come from the players and the GM's Roleplay.

    ” 1. character arcs that support characters like Pippin, who change drastically, and Legolas, who changes only in subtle intrapersonal ways.”

    Pippin's development is so drastic in part because before the events of the book his life was quite peaceful and sheltered. Legolas had lived for how long before the fellowship started? It's something I'd say no RPG does well. They all have races that live for varying amounts of time while not accounting for how that affects the experiences in their lives.

    “2. Change meetings and twists of fate”

    I think you meant Chance meetings but no worries my spells horrible and these comment boxes are a pain to proof read. This really has to do with a GM's story and how players interact with it. I'm not sure how one would go about building a system that well in truth I'm not sure what you'd want. To encourage? To make them happen?

    “3. Characters' emotional movement through hope, despair and reckless courage (or getting stuck in despair like Saruman or Denethor)”

    I'm still going with RP. Although lets group this and your next one together. Cause I might have a suggestion.

    “4. Imbalance that is still fun for all players in, for example, the Fellowship – so Legolas' player and Pippin's player both enjoy a game session.”

    Alright so interpersonal relationships and imbalance of characters. So I just listened to a podcast with an interview with Josh Roby a freelance writer with Margaret Weis productions. He's working on the Smallville RPG and in that game they have superhero's with powers and your everyday normal people he talks about how they tried to make it fun for both. Also they had some interpersonal mechanics that seemed like they could be tweeked to work for you.
    anyways give it a listen.


  4. I think what you're saying is true for previous LotR games – why I want to build a new one 🙂 When the system doesn't do what it's supposed to do, the GM (who is part of the system) has to step up and improvise. When the system does what it is supposed to do, though, that job is a lot easier, and the fun depends less on the GM's skill.


    1. Character arcs can be built into the system. Burning Wheel does this, though it takes a long time to take effect. Even old school D&D sort of did this with different classes having different experience tables. The old Dragonlance AD&D setting book did this as well with black-robe and white-robe mages having different experience tables, so that black-robes were more powerful early and then plateaued, whereas white robes kept getting more powerful in the middle and end-game. This was intentional, to follow the fiction. A game like Star Wars D20 Revised or Star Wars Saga does this with Force Points and Dark Side Points.

    The point is, it can be done, and has been done. I just want to build on what's been done before, and h ave it support the kind of game I want.

    As an example, in my current build, a Hobbit starts out by far the least 'powerful', but develops more quickly with each session. An Elf starts out the most 'powerful', but can only make small character changes and doesn't improve that much at all.

    As another trade-off, Hobbit players have the most input into the storyline itself, whereas Elven players have the least. This fits in directly with how Tolkien views Fate, and how it acts differently on different races.

    I was going to write more, but maybe this example gives a sense of what I'm talking about?


  5. I have some thoughts and Ideas but unfortunately I read the books sooooo long ago that I just don't think I should throw things out there at the moment. I'll have to find my books or maybe listen to the Tolkien Professor.


  6. Obviously, as a lunatic fan-boy, I recommend both. At the very least, the Tolkien Professor has a few “chats” that he's recorded on particular subjects from the Hobbit to the Silmarillion.

    I recommend what he has up as his intro lecture, “How to Read Tolkien and Why” to get an idea of what he's about.


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