Game Design Snapshot: Servants of the Secret Fire

Servants of the Secret Fire is my attempt to do something no one has done before (that I’ve seen) – design a Middle Earth RPG.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been many attempts, including the many books published by Iron Crown Enterprises, Decipher and even Luke Crane (Burning Wheel is much more than an attempt to model Middle-Earth, but it has a hefty dose of Tolkien at it’s core).  I think the best one I’ve seen might be Realm Guard, a hack of Mouse Guard, because it is a focused game that doesn’t try to model everything in the setting.  There was also a person writing Song of Arda, a free game online that I liked when it was available but it’s been gone for about four years now.  There are many attempts out there if you look for them, including one more I just found.  The overwhelming majority are one more crappy D&D ripoff with the serial numbers filed off.  Here and there one can find a sub-system that actually models something Tolkienian.
People tend to think of Middle Earth as being the source of D&D, but this is not the case.  The only ones who kick in doors to take peoples’ stuff in Middle-Earth are the Orcs.  Middle-Earth’s setting, assumptions, magic system and so on are entirely different from the ‘standard’ D&D settings, and the core D&D system has never modeled Middle-Earth, or was it intended to.  As a result of this, every single one of these D&D ripoff games fail entirely.
My thinking on this topic has actually been elevated by the Tolkien Professor.  He has posted many hours of his class lectures on the works of Tolkien – including The Silmarillion, Mythopoeia, Leaf by Niggle and so on. Prof. Corey Olsen does a great job of pointing out what makes Tolkien stand out as one of the best writers of the last century (a claim I’ll happily defend).  He is willing to delve into Tolkien’s theology and philosophy, and while I don’t think he needlessly lionizes the man, he does treat the material thoughtfully.
It’s a live question, frankly, of whether it is even possible to model Middle-Earth with a game of any kind.  Is it possible to create a game with rules founded in the mythological structures of the Elder Edda, the Kalevala and Catholicism?  Are fictional and mythological narratives too far removed from what actually happens at a gaming table?
I’m trying.  I have a rough playtest document at the moment, almost ready to run with a group.  This attempt is semi-simulationist, which I’m sure will make all the indie-types roll their eyes, but everyone knows the Forge was founded to complain about simulationism (said with a smirk).
Late addition:
In listening to The Tolkien Professor talk about the Ainulindale and the fall of Melkor discussion that followed, I like the idea of having attributes that change, becoming more limited, when a character becomes corrupted.  Melkor’s splendor becomes contempt and arrogance; his understanding becomes subtlety.  I like that, in falling, a character is also constricted and constrained.  Both Gollum and Sam are strong for such small people, but what do they use their strength for?  What can they use their strength for?  Gandalf and Saruman have granted powers, but Saruman becomes obsessed and single-minded whereas Gandalf remains versatile and generous.
I just edited the playtest document to work that into the rules.  It felt good.

5 thoughts on “Game Design Snapshot: Servants of the Secret Fire

  1. This is very exciting. I love your passion for Tolkien, and I am pretty sure that this and your talent and experience will translate into a game I will like. I will be looking for this on Kickstart.

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  2. Hey, thanks man. I don't know if it could go on Kickstarter, because that would be accepting money for a game that I don't own the license for. The best I think I could do, my plan right now, is to do the same as was done with Realm Guard and release it for free.

    This is definitely a little project that I feel strongly about – it is also kind of on the back burner. The playtest doc is to the point where I could run it and try out some of the bits and pieces, but it is not a thing I could hand anyone by a long shot.

    Maybe I can finish it before the release of the new Hobbit movie?

    Right now, though, Two Friars and a Fool's big release next month is taking most of my extra brain-time, with the leftovers going to rounding out Reckoning.

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  3. I'm looking forward to seeing this. It's nice to know a true Tolkien fan is working on it instead of saying it could never be done. I don't have a lot of experience with this sort of thing. A few years ago I was given some of the Star Wars Saga Edition books and stumbled on a great group and have had a blast. I play LotRO sometimes and have tinkered with a LotRO Saga Edition conversion, but I don't think it would work very well for truly capturing Tolkien.

    I've also looked a Savage Worlds, and now that Smallville is out I've looked at Cortex. I like it's focus on relationships, and a game that can find balance with a Kryptonian and humans gives me hope for balancing Tolkien's elves and hobbits rather than some version of D&D's elves and halflings.

    The others in my group have a lot of experience with different games and I'm sure they'd be happy to test anything you like. Just let me know if we can help. Either way, thank you for sharing your love and hard work!

    – Stephen

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  4. @ Stephen: Sorry man, for some reason Blogger needed me to moderate your comment, and I only caught it ::cough:: months later. That sucks of me and I'm very sorry.

    I'll be in touch when I get a playable version of SotSF done. It'll be a while, so no worries if you've moved on, or don't have any idea who I am at that point 🙂

    Balancing the unbalanced-ness of Middle-Earth is definitely a design challenge. I kind of like what Dresden Files does, with less powerful characters having a higher refresh rate, so what I'm looking at is that the least powerful characters have the biggest impact on the storyline – think Merry and Pippin starting an Ent war, or Merry helping kill the Witch King.

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