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).
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.