The Moment of Courage and Despair

One of the things that people commonly underestimate is the depth of grief and despair to be found in the works of JRR Tolkien. This is, without a doubt, a big part of the huge impact that his work had on me, starting as an early adolescent to the present day. I could either say that I struggle with depression, or that I perceive the world around me and feel tremendous grief and despair about it, and either one, or both, would be true.

A friend recently @ed me on Twitter, wondering what I had to say about eucatastrophe, as I’ve written and thought about it in the past. Eucatastrophe is, in brief, a “The eagles are coming!” moment, as found at the climax of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is an idea that Tolkien first described with that term, but not an idea original to him by any means (of course). Tolkien learned it from Christianity, and would say that his idea of eucatastrophe is merely patterned after the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, he argued that we find ideas like eucatastrophe compelling precisely because they mirror the great story of God saving the world. It come up in his poem Mythopoeia, if you look for it, and in many of his writings. Dig in – I’m not going to cite everything here.

My friend said the following on Twitter:

“Because Holy Christ, do we need a little eucatastrophe right now. I honestly don’t know how else a deliverance from global social media-fueled capitalist fascism will occur.”

Now, this is a Unitarian Universalist saying “Holy Christ,” so you know it’s serious and they’re at wit’s end.

Since he asked me, I thought about what I might say on the topic of eucatastrophe, because I definitely share his despair about the situation of the world. And rightly so – if you are optimistic about the next 100 years for humanity and the natural world, I’m comfortable saying that you are ignorant of, or willfully ignoring, a lot of things. And to be clear, I don’t blame you. If you can’t escape the burning house, you can try to make sense of the flames. Maybe that’s all we can do.

The eucatastrophe is by definition unexpected – it is something you did not anticipate or even imagine happening. Even if you don’t believe that Jesus came back, you can probably agree that after his crucifixion, no one around him expected him to come back. None of his followers behaved as if he was going to come back – not even the women, who were clearly the smart and courageous ones.

Let’s say my friend and I are right, and only an eucatastophe can save us, and millions of other species as well, at this juncture. That means that our current moment is some moment before this eucatastrophe. But what is the moment before eucatastrophe like? The main eucatastrophe scene in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings occurs while the point of view character is unconscious, but let’s look at the one from The Return of the King, starting with preparation for the last battle at the Black Gate in the chapter “The Black Gate Opens.”

During their preparation for the last battle, Gandalf says this:

‘We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dur be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless – as we surely shall, if we sit here – and know as we die that no new age shall be.’

Bilbo growing in courage is a theme of The Hobbit, and courage without hope is a theme in The Lord of the Rings, becoming a more dominant one as the story progresses. Even the small glimmer of hope that Gandalf clings to here is snuffed out in the same chapter, as we will see. But this is the kind of decision-making that occurs before the eucatastrophe – no reasonable hope of victory or success exists, and yet they resolve to see the fight through to the bitter end.

Here we get the admixture that is found in many places in Tolkien’s writing – a combination of faithfulness and fortitude in the midst of a hard task. Here Tolkien drew upon his understanding of Roman Catholic moral theology and virtue, as well as the grim courage in the face of certain death that typified the Germanic heroic literature which was his professional life. It is, in the best sense I think, martyrdom. It is something we can see reflected in, for example, Daniel chapter 3:

16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 17 If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.[b]18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

Like many of the heroes we see in The Lord of the Rings, including Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, Theoden in Helm’s Deep, and now the Captains of the West preparing to march on Mordor, here we have the heroes of the story resisting not because they expect victory but because they simply refuse to give up. Being faithful to what they value and believe is more important than winning, and even the hopelessness of their situation cannot turn them aside.

But even the small hope that Gandalf holds out is later extinguished.

When they reach the Black Gate, neither the Captains of the West nor the first-time reader knows what has happened to Frodo and Sam, but the Mouth of Sauron relishes the opportunity to crush everyone’s hope:

The Messenger put these aside, and there to the wonder and dismay of all the Captains he held up first the short sword that Sam had carried, and next a grey cloak with an elven-brooch, and last the coat of mithril-mail that Frodo had worn wrapped in his tattered garments. A blackness came before their eyes, and it seemed to them in a moment of silence that the world stood still, but their hearts were dead and their last hope gone.

As the moment before eucatastrophe is drawn out, even small hopes are extinguished. The hopes of the strongest, the leaders of this last desperate attempt at buying time for true victory, are crushed. Not long after this, battle is truly joined, and everyone’s hope is lost. Now nothing seems to stand between them and a painful, meaningless death.

The wind blew, and the trumpets sang, and arrows whined; but the sun now climbing towards the South was veiled in the reeks of Mordor, and through a threatening haze it gleamed, remote, a sullen red, as if it were the ending of the day, or the end maybe of all the world of light. And out of the gathering mirk the Nazgul came with their cold voices crying words of death: and then all hope was quenched.

And we, as the reader, are privy to Pippin’s last thoughts, which hint at eucatastrophe for us. But from Pippin’s point of view, this is his death, ending in defeat as he thought would happen all along, crushed and suffocated beneath the weight of a troll-corpse, one more lump of carrion for the crows.

‘So it ends as I guessed it would,’ his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear. And then even as it winged away into forgetfulness it heard voices, and they seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far above:

‘The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!’

For one moment more Pippin’s thought hovered. ‘Bilbo!’ it said. ‘But no! That came in his tale, long long ago. This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!’ And his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more.

We see that there might be some hope to keep us reading, as we look at see that we have 3/4 of the book left to go through (including Appendices) before we’re done. We know the story continues, but Pippin does not. As far as he knows, all of his friends are dead or will soon be killed, and the Shire will be destroyed, and all the known world will be plunged into darkness.

Wrath, Grief, and Ruin

The moment before eucatastrophe is a time of wrath, grief, and ruin. Wrath, as we see Gandalf seize the tokens from the Mouth of Sauron, in memory of his friends, and then he drives the ‘Messenger’ off in terror. Fine. There is no hope. Gird up your loins, then, because we are coming for you.

Grief, because in learning that Sam and Frodo are apparently captured, sentenced to long, slow torture spanning years until they are utterly broken, Gandalf is losing two beloved friends and companions. Not only the hope of the world was with them, but Gandalf’s love, concern, and friendship. Pippin can’t help but cry out, revealing that they know to whom those things belonged, and the Mouth of Sauron delights in their pain as eagerly as if he was wearing a red MAGA hat.

Ruin because this was the end. At that point, no one in leadership had any expectation of survival. They came to terms with the fact that all they had left to do was to go down fighting.

So then, if we are in a similar moment, what is it that we can look toward that will save us from social media-fueled capitalist fascism?


Fight anyway.

The Means at the End

This is a dangerous place to leave the discussion, because one could easily imagine the MAGA-bomber giving a similar answer – that wrath, grief and ruin drove him to the last desperate act of political assassination. Any number of people, driven to horrific violence, might tell a similar story of perceived loss, and of what they saw as courage in the face of terrible odds.

For this reason, any movement that seeks to resist social media-driven capitalist fascism, or however else you imagine the looming end, must be nonviolent. 

Because a terrible end to this human story seems so inevitable; because the odds are so overwhelmingly stacked against any such resistance; because the forces of evil are so thoroughly ascendant, there is no other option that has any hope of leading to moral ends. In the story of The Lord of the Rings, violence didn’t work. It didn’t bring hope or lasting victory. In our current story, we thought that we defeated the Nazis back in 1945. Little did we know that millions of Americans would support a President who our own Nazis would see as their last, great hope, who would sing the praises of authoritarian dictators and vilify the press, campaign on explicit bigotry and nativism, and basically follow the blueprint of 1930s Germany.

In the face of wrath, grief, and ruin, driven to extremity, human beings who hold up violence as an option will almost invariably turn to violence. This is where the imagery in The Lord of the Rings falls short in applicability to our situation today. We aren’t fighting orcs, we are fighting other human beings who are on the wrong side of history for some human reason. They are not driven by the supernatural will of the emissary of a fallen angel, but driven by recognizable, human motivations like fear, addiction, greed, cowardice and apathy.

The means with which we fight must be humane above all else. 

Here, radical ideologies are often unhelpful, but Christianity might be a powerful resource. Earlier, I described the moment before eucatastrophe as martyrdom from Tolkien’s Roman Catholic point of view, and the martyrs, as far as I know, died resisting nonviolently. (Know a lot about martyrs? Comment below)

To live in this moment before eucatastrophe, we need much more MLK Jr. than we need Aragorn. But to see and understand this moment, I think we can look to the works of Tolkien, to understand our current moment. If it is the moment before eucatastrophe, we will of course not know, but the heroic thing is to fight anyway, with or without hope.


‘Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.’

The above quote from Gandalf is not quite accurate, given climate change, but important nonetheless I think. There is always another evil – we are only responsible for the fields that we know.

Part 1: Orc Is A Process

There is a lot of speculation out there as to where orcs come from in the Tolkien legendarium. There are a lot of answers to this question. The slimy mud-pits of Peter Jackson’s Isengard come to mind, for example.

Some things we “know”: there seem to be no orc nor goblin women at all. There are no children, adolescents, etc. No orc villages where they grow up and raise crops. We have no idea what they eat in Goblin Town, when they can’t get dwarves and a hobbit. Orcs are, when we meet them, either singing tormentors or war-wearly soldiers who fear the secret police. We know that over time, mountain tunnels re-fill with orcs. They breed, if they breed, in secret, like vermin. They are described as “…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (Letter 210) (I’m not going into the implicit racism here and elsewhere in Tolkien’s works – but there it is) In an unpublished letter to a Mrs. Munsby, he said, “There must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. Not much was known.” The ambiguity is increased by Tolkien’s method with his own legendarium, which I appreciate – treating it like a set of documents with multiple authors and a lot of uncertainty.

I just re-read The Lord of the Rings for the many-teenth time, and part of what was on my mind was this whole orc question. The text itself does not answer the question, and even reading Tolkien’s other writings and letters gives no clear, definitive answer. One theory found in the Silmarillion is that when Morgoth captured elves he twisted them, by slow torturous arts, into the first orcs. We know that Morgoth, and by extension Sauron and Saruman, cannot create new forms of life but can only twist what already exists. In the context of the Silmarillion, this is presented as a theory among the elves that they don’t know to be true.

So, if that is true, how did Saruman begin to create the half-orcs and goblin-men we see as early as when the hobbits first reach Bree? We can look at the White Wizard because, unlike Morgoth or Sauron, Saruman created orcs and goblins over the course of the story we know, and I think that the way his creations are described gives us insight into where orcs and goblins come from.

There must be some mid-way point between non-orc and orc that Saruman was able to reach while working in secret. Now, one assumption is that he bred half-orcs, meaning he presumably kidnapped humans and forced them to have sex with orcs. So the pits beneath Isengard would have been rape-pits. Now, Tolkien is famously uninterested in where dwarf-children come from – the only implication that dwarf-children even exist is that dwarves who used to live in Dale were highly-skilled toymakers. In this, Tolkien is simply drawing on his source material: Germanic myth and legend, equally uninterested in where dwarf-babies come from. (Come to think of it, all of his elvish characters also enter their particular stories as full-grown adults, and the elf-children tends to refer to elves who lived near the creation of the world rather than literal children.) But Tolkien is no more interested in dwarf-children than the Norse Sagas and Eddas were, and this disinterest is also applied to orcs.

My theory is that orcs are the result of torment. This explains a lot of things in the story, while bringing in the theory (attributed to the elvish creators of the stories Bilbo presumably translated in The Silmarillion as Translations From the Elvish by B. B.) that the first orcs were born of elves, twisted and tormented in the prisons beneath Angband in the First Age.

It Explains Goblin Town

When we first meet orcs, it is in The Hobbit, and they are called goblins. What do we learn about them? They are tricky – they have a clever trap designed to help them capture travelers who take refuge in a particularly desirable cave. Once the goblins have captured the dwarves, they sing a song about how they are going to drag them down underground to work as slaves, presumably until they die. In An Unexpected Journey, the Goblin King goes into greater detail, spelling out the torture as well as slavery that the dwarves have to look forward to.

But what if the reason that the caverns beneath the Misty Mountains slowly fill with goblins and orcs over the years is because they are capturing travelers, like the dwarves, and tormenting them underground until they become orcs themselves?

It reminds me of the short story of a person who is tortured by a devil in hell. Eventually, the devil hands the person the torture implements, because they have become a demon, and then a new person is sent to them in order to be tormented. Hell is self-sustaining.

It Explains Sauron’s Control of the East and South

We are told more than once in the Lord of the Rings that Sauron holds sway over the Haradrim, Corsairs of Umbar, Easterlings, and similar peoples living south and east of Mordor. Then why, one wonders, would he use orcs at all? Why not just bring up human conscripts, as he does during the War of the Ring, all the time? Why are his minions almost invariably orcs?

In my theory, he has control of these regions so that he always has a fresh supply of people to torment and turn into orcs. Additionally, this explains why orcs are racially coded as dark-skinned and/or Asian – just as people living in the East and South of Middle-Earth would be. If all of the living orcs were descendants of the first elves Morgoth captured and twisted to his own purposes, why would they have features reflecting the lands that Sauron controlled? They would all have twisted elvish features, one would assume.

One can speculate, perhaps, that Sauron lacked the power to capture and twist elves the way that Morgoth, most powerful of the Valar, could. Maybe Morgoth’s orcs, some of whom are still clearly around (note the conversations Sam overhears in the tower of Cirith Ungol between orcs who seem to remember the First Age), were superior, and Sauron is only able to round up humans who are easier to corrupt, to create his own orcs. That would fit with the overall theme, in the ancient world and in Middle-Earth, of decline over the centuries on all sides.

It Explains Why Mordor Is So Awful

Mordor, as a stronghold, makes no sense. High walls, literally raised by Sauron’s power and by his orcs after the fact, sometimes manufactured out of slag and industrial waste, encircle this land, keeping foes out and allies in. Within those encircling mountains is a horrific land where almost nothing grows, where the water is almost undrinkable, and the ‘air itself is a poisonous fume’ as Boromir explains in the first Peter Jackson film.

Mordor is precisely the kind of place that orcs would create – wherever we see them, they trample and harm and vandalize – but why would Sauron create it? Mordor makes no sense if orcs are just another species of being, like elf or dwarf or hobbit, but Mordor makes perfect sense if orcs are created by torment. They have to live in a perpetual hell in order to remain sufficiently orcish. The walls have to keep the orcs in as much as keep foes out, because torment is what makes an orc.

It Explains Saruman’s Half-Orcs

This is precisely why Saruman is working with what appear to be half-orcs or goblin-men – he has not had the time to twist his own slaves sufficiently to make them into full orcs. They are larger than normal for orcs, who are described as smaller in stature than most humans, and they are still able to move around freely during daytime, but they are sufficiently orcish to have all of the cruelty he desires in a personal army. This is why he is able to send some of the less-goblin-looking north as spies and, later, as ruffians serving the Boss Lotho. The orc-ing process is not complete. Throughout The Scouring of the Shire, the impression we have of Lotho’s men (really Sharky’s men) is that they are orcish humans. They have the racially-coded features, and the seemingly innate small-mindedness and cruelty, but are not so orcish that the hobbits know to resist them at first they way they would if they were invaded by a small army of goblins. (Ask Golfimbul)

It Connects Orcs to Wraiths

Wraiths are once-great humans, kings of Numenorean descent, twisted and warped so profoundly that they lose their physical bodies and all sense of individual will. They are called wraiths very intentionally, as wraith shares an Old English root word with wreath and writhe – to twist, or to be twisted. Orcs created by ongoing torment would fit the strong theme in Middle-Earth that evil can only corrupt what is and cannot create something new.

Against Authoritarianism

Not only are orcs twisted and cruel, but they are also thoroughly authoritarian, especially in the case of the orcs of Mordor. During the chapters following Shelob’s attack on Frodo, Sam overhears a lot of orc-talk, and it is almost always preoccupied with bosses, punishment, secret police, traitors, and so on – orcs here would fit perfectly well in a dystopian story like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. This is a connection that Tolkien made intentionally – he said once in a letter that his own political leanings were more toward anarchism, as in the ‘abolishion of control.’ The heart of evil, for Tolkien, was the will to dominate other people. But in orcs, we have a people who are dominated and truamatized so thoroughly that they replicate their trauma wherever they go.

We all know of people like that, I think.

Trump Makes Orcs

Tolkien wrote to Christopher in Letter 71:

Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction: your vigorous words well describe the tribe; only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For ‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory’, and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels. But it does make some difference who are your captains and whether they are orc-like per se!

To Tolkien, orcs were realistic, much as they have been panned since as irredeemably evil cannon-fodder. I’m not sure about entirely realistic, but if orc is a process, as I believe, then we can see that process at work wherever we look.  For example, who could possibly work at a concentration camp that served as a detention center for small children stolen from their asylum-seeking parents?

Orcs, that’s who.

And who is currently flourishing? Who is getting their way? We have a whole, large contingent in the United States of people who seem to mainly take pleasure in other’s suffering and discomfort. We have the vapid, nihilistic cruelty of Internet trolls, waves of rape threats aimed at any woman who dares appear in a science fiction film or comment on…anything, and a President who seems to have been elected solely to tear down various institutions. It is easy to see this as an age of orc-behavior, hurting for the sake of hurting, combined with growing comfort with regard to fear and authoritarianism.

In his refections on the Fourth Age, the so-called Age of Men, Tolkien talked about how he saw a rise in “orc-mischief,” that is, non-orcs behaving in orcish ways. A young cult arises in Gondor decades after the death of King Elessar – one can imagine such a cult arising on 4chan or through Breitbart. Hell, it already has. It’s called the alt-right by people who have forgotten what “Nazi” means.

The story of the Fourth Age never got off the ground for Tolkien, so among other things, we don’t know from his work what can be done about orcs, short of fighting them. This is where the presentation of evil in Middle-Earth is limited, as it is in any story. We only have the stories we have.

Perhaps the question is, what is the torment that has created these particular orcs? Because if I’m right, and if this is a meaningful comparison at all, then ending that torment, whatever it is, might be the way to halt the orc-process.

Another question that I’m thinking through, given the idea that orcs are created by torment, is why are almost all of the people engaging in orc-behavior in our day and age white? Even a cursory glance at American history reveals a panoply of torment aimed at non-whites by whites. Genocide and slavery and exploitation and apartheid. So why are all of these Trump-voting orcs white?

Thoughts on this interpretation of orcs? Of our current situation in the US? What do you think is the torment and its source? 

Elves and Batman: Stories With No End Aggrieve Us

In the legendarium (I just like that word) of Middle-Earth, the story of the elves ends in grief and loss. The elves are slowly overcome by grief by their long years in the world, and at last the world loses them as they depart into the Undying Lands. Their stories have no endings – they just go on and on. In the same way that Bilbo found so exhausting when he still had the Ring, “…like butter scraped over too much bread.” It’s clear from the text, to me at least, that their longevity is what brings their grief – part of why human mortality is called a gift. Our stories, as humans, have endings built in from the start.

I was thinking about superhero reboots, just now. How even in the comics, periodically superheroes and supervillains have to be rebooted, and in movies every decade or so. Or more often if you’re Spider-Man. Even when you have four Batman movies in a row without a new origin story, they are four very different Batman movies. But it seems that a trilogy is about as far as they tend to get before they start again.

How many times have we seen Bruce Wayne’s parents shot, or seen Uncle Ben die? How many times has Superman crash-landed on Earth? Right now I’m watching the new Punisher series on Netflix, and I’ve watched two other Punisher movies before now. Ten or fifteen years from now, will we have a Wonder Woman or Black Panther reboot? Will that be how we know that POC and female supers are here to stay as lead characters?

The problem with superheroes is that they are like elves – their stories have no end unless they die, and since death means the end of a storyline and loss of sales, superheroes never die. Neither do supervillains. Well, generally speaking of course. But even looking through a list of supers who have died, particular individuals have been the ones who died. The superheroes go on. They never die, and eventually it comes to grief. We just get tired of the story, and then comes the reboot.

Thing is, stories need endings. Eventually they attenuate, then burn out; wear out their welcome and their meaning. Eventually, without an end, stories don’t mean anything.

The other things is, the end of stories is always contrived. Endings are something we make up, so that we can make sense. Sam Gamgee hits on this truth, when he realizes that he is part of the same story that Beren and Luthien were in, that the light of the Silmaril is the same light caught in the Vial of Galadriel that he and Frodo carried. “Don’t the great tales ever end?”

Well, Sam, yes and no. We end them, in order to make meaning. Or, when we can’t end them, as with so may superheroes, they lose the meaning they had. I think so, anyway. So we go to see reboots, because if the story can’t end, at least it can begin again.

But that’s not as good. It’s never as good.

The One Ring: Rohirrim

I’m getting ready to run a campaign using The One Ring by Cubicle 7, and my wife insisted on being able to play one of the Rohirrim. I got some good leads and resources from Cubicle 7’s forum and used fan-created material as a starting point – but it wasn’t quite right. Here is my take, 90% done.

Men of Rohan

They are proud and willful, but they are true-hearted, generous in thought and deed; bold but not cruel; wise but unlearned, writing no books but singing many songs, after the manner of the children of Men before the Dark Years. ”
—Aragorn, The Two Towers

The Rohirrim are descended from the Éothéod, a race of Men who lived in the vales of the Great River Anduin, but that removed to Calenardhon, which was granted them in perpetuity by the Ruling Steward of Gondor, Cirion in reward for the assistance that they offered Gondor at a time of great need. As a result, they were lifelong allies of Gondor bound by the Oath of Eorl. At that time Calenardhon was renamed Rohan (Horse-land) after their many horses. By the Rohirrim themselves Rohan is usually called The Mark.

They are ruled by a line of kings descended from Eorl the Young, who had first brought them to Rohan, and in time of war every able man rode to meet the Muster of Rohan.

The people of the Mark, men and women, tend to be tall and fair, and usually wear their hair long and braided. They often have beautiful singing voices, and know many songs, which is how they pass on lore and history from generation to generation. They are the culture that has the closest bond with their horses. They are accustomed to fighting the Dunlendings in the west and fending off goblin-raids from the north and east when they come seeking to steal horses and slaves.

The Rohirrim share a close ancestry with the Bardings of Dale and a more distant ancestry with the people of Wilderland.

Standard of Living
The people of Rohan do not live extravagant lives – their horses and wide lands constitute the majority of their wealth outside of Edoras. They are a Martial people, eschewing outward wealth but always well-equipped for war.

The people of Rohan speak Westron as well as their own tongue commonly called Rohirric, distantly related to that spoken by the people of the Vales of Anduin to the north.

Rohirrim Adventurers

Suggested Callings
People of Rohan living in Rhovanion are far from home, and this makes the most sense for a Slayer who has taken on a quest of some kind, to hunt a legendary beast or avenge a long-forgotten wrong, or a Wanderer, who is simply struck by a desire to see distant sights in Middle-Earth, and followed the Anduin north from his homeland.

Unusual Calling
It is highly unusual for one of the Rohirrim to live the life of the Scholar. Most Rohirrim are much more interested in glory than in lore.

What Their Chieftain Says…

Bard’s people have returned to their homeland, we have heard, though we know little of how things fare with them. Some trade has come south down the Great River, and we have returned in kind. Time will tell whether the line of Girion will return to its former glory.

We know nothing about these strange folk apart from rumors – that they take the shapes of bears. Our oldest songs speak of such things, but they have not come to the Mark.

Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain
We know of Dwarves, but seem little of them. We have our own smiths and stonemasons, and the only creatures living in the mountains to the north are Orcs and Goblins. We know them to be doughty warriors, but what we know is from ancient songs and stories.

Elves of Mirkwood
We do not trust Elves nor their sorcery. Some of our own have come under the shadow of the Lady of the Wood, or so she is called, and have been enchanted. They never return, or they return changed. Elves are best left alone, and they seem to prefer it that way for their part.

Hobbits of the Shire
We know stories of the holbytlan, the hole-dwellers, from before the time of Eorl the Young. We once lived near them, or so we believe, but we have not seen any of them for many generations, and most now believe them to be a fairy-story told to children during long winter nights.

Woodmen of Wilderland
It is said that Eorl the Young and the first Eorlingas came from the people who are now called Woodmen. Perhaps they stayed, preferring the woods to the open fields. Sometimes a group of them comes south, seeking to explore, and now and then riders go north to learn of our history for themselves, but while we share some distant relation to them Woodmen, we share little else.

Cultural Blessing
Rider of the Mark: When mounted, all weapon skills and movement skills are considered favored.

Starting Skill Scores
Awe 2
Athletics 2
Awareness 1
Explore 1
Song 2
Craft 0
Inspire 1
Travel 3
Insight 2
Healing 1
Courtesy 0
Battle 2
Persuade 0
Stealth 0
Search 0
Hunting 2
Riddle 1
Lore 0

Weapon Skills
Bow 2, Axe 1, Dagger 1
Spear 2, Sword 1, Dagger 1

Choose two Traits from: Beast-Lore, Fire-making, Herb-lore, Horse-riding, Leechcraft, Riddermark-lore, Story-telling

Backgrounds (aimed at why they would be in the North)

1 – Shieldmaiden
While the men are called upon to defend the Mark, it is the women who are often called upon to defend the homestead, and there are no reinforcements coming to the rescue when reavers and raiders come. Some women eschew a family entirely, devoting themselves to martial training, and they will often fight alongside the men as well as in defense of their homes. You are one such, and you had to prove yourself more skilled and more fierce than most men – but you will see that your name is remembered. You do not fear death, but rather to be bound by any will but your own. You have left your homeland to make a name for yourself in the wider world.

Basic Attributes
Body 6, Heart 6, Wits 2

Favored Skill

Distinctive Features
(choose two traits from the following)
Bold, Determined, Fair, Fierce, Forthright, Proud, Secretive, Wilful

2 – Fell Deeds Awake – Ride to Ruin
You were not there when they came to your village in the Eastfold, raiders from the shadowy East. You were not there when they slaughtered families, including yours – when they burned farms and fields and took only the horses with them. You were suddenly awakened to a wider world around you, and to a looming Shadow that seems to be growing despite the courage of your people. You have sworn to hunt that Shadow – the least your village deserves is revenge.

Basic Attributes
Body 5, Heart 6, Wits 3

Favored Skill

Distinctive Features
(choose two traits from the following)
Determined, Elusive, Grim, Hardened, Patient, Vengeful, Wrathful

3 – Emissary of Edoras
You were chosen by King Fengel to ride with a small group North and re-establish relations with King Bard and, if possible, King Dain of the lonely mountain. You are not so sure that Elves are to be trusted, but any information about them might be helpful to your King. You are to remain in the North. Each spring a rider will leave the north for Edoras, and each fall he will return to exchange news. Do what you can to learn of these distant relatives, and represent your own people to them well.

Basic Attributes
Body 3, Heart 5, Wits 6

Favored Skill

Distinctive Features
(choose two traits from the following)
Bold, Curious, Fair, Fair-spoken, Generous, Lordly, Proud, Tall

4 – Exile
You had a rival, or outright enemy, and the conflict between you escalated over the course of your adolescence until it finally came to blows. You fought, a duel like your ancestors used to fight, but it turned bloodier than you intended. It was meant to be to first blood, but the first wound you inflicted was fatal. Your foe was of higher standing than you, and had many friends. Your family, disgraced, had to pay the weregild, bankrupting them, and you were exiled. There was not enough evidence of malice to have you executed by the Marshall, but you doubt you can ever come home. You heard that some of the peoples in the North share ancestry with your people, and so you have made the long and arduous journey there to try and make a new life.

Basic Attributes
Body 7, Heart 3, Wits 4

Favored Skill

Distinctive Feature
(choose two traits from the following)
Elusive, Grim, Hardened, Merciful, Reckless, Suspicious, Wrathful

Rohirrim Names

Male Names:

Female Names:

Adventuring Age: 16-30

Endurance and Hope
Endurance 22 + Heart
Hope 8 + Heart

Cultural Virtues
Wise but unlearned
One of the Rohirrim with this Virtue can roll Song in place of Lore. If she also has Lore, then she can roll an extra advantage die.

Your understanding of horses is such that you can speak to them simple phrases, and understand their responses.

When rolling Insight to discern whether someone is being honest, roll the Feat die twice and take the best result. When using Courtesy to speak the simple truth, do the same.

Proud and willful
When rolling a Valour check to resist fear, roll the Feat die twice and take the better result.

Cultural Rewards
White-plume Helm
When making an Awe or Inspire roll wearing the helm, roll the Feat die twice and take the best result.

Bow of the Mark (easier to use from horseback)
This is a recurve bow designed to be used from horseback, and imposes no penalty for being used thusly.

Named Blade
You have inherited a well-known blade, one that has been named and will be remembered. The edge rating for this sword is one better than normal.

Horn of the Mark
If the Horn of the Mark is blown during the opening volley of a skirmish or battle, all foes nearby lose 1 Hate.

Horse of the Mark (you are not assumed to start with a warhorse – they are very valuable, especially in the North)

Grave-Mound Spear
The spears that ring a burial mound of one of the Kings of Rohan are left to rust and moulder, but this one did not. It carries the blessing of one of the kings of old. Whenever you inflict a wound with this spear, your foe also loses one Hate (or Hope).

Fighting from Horseback
When attacking from horseback, all weapon skills are considered to be favored. In addition, when the hero would take a wound, the wound can instead be taken by the horse. Horses have two wounds, so if wounded twice, a horse is near death.

During the opening volley between two groups in a skirmish, a mounted character can charge to a Forward stance and make an attack with a bonus advantage die.

It is assumed that a warhorse is trained to lash out with bites and hooves during battle, but that these will not deal significant damage – they just provide the rider with an advantage over foes on foot.

A mounted fighter who is unobstructed (not in the middle of a melee or a battle line) can move from a forward to a rearward stance with one move.

Back to Some Game Design

My obsession with Tolkien is well documented. There has been a recent lull in editing activity on my other projects, and one of the things that happens at such a time is I dust off an older project and put some more work into it. In this case, that project is Servants of the Secret Fire, my Middle-Earth RPG. It is a cool game, and I hit a point where I had enough new tweaks and ideas that I wanted to put down another draft. So far, so good – about 5,000 words have rolled out in the past few days, partly by way of iPhone while watching a friend play Red Dead Redemption, so clearly my mind is in this space.

I was recently invited to write for my friend Pete Figtree’s blog, and he gave me a blank slate, so of course I wrote about Tolkien. I have also been reading about Tolkien and listening to the Aldasaga podcast, which is about Tolkien and Norse myth. I think these things build up to a critical mass, and one of the main ways I discharge this extra intellectual payload is through gaming. Since I haven’t yet found a group to play The One Ring with, this is what happens.

It’s also a hell of a lot easier than dealing with a new city, new job, toddler, moving and bills.

The One Ring is hands-down the best Middle-Earth RPG out there right now. I love running it and would likely love playing in a game as well. I can still do better. Now I just have to prove it by actually doing better. If I finish SotSF, I will be of course be giving it away. If anyone reading this has any interest in reading or paytesting it, please contact me and let me know. It probably won’t be ready for beta playtesting for a while (I haven’t even had an alpha playtest yet, honestly), but obviously that’ll need to happen.

Maybe other people have fewer of these, but this is one of those projects that I work on simply because I enjoy thinking about it and working on it. I don’t make it a priority over actual work – Never Pray Again and writing for my new job come first, no question, as do the couple of editing gigs that I have. But there is still time when I can squeeze in even more writing and thinking, and this is it. My fantasy heartbreaker.

I don’t know whether it is better or worse that I realize that and still work on it.

My First Time Running The One Ring

Last night I got to run my first session of The One Ring for the group I usually play Savage Worlds with.  None of them had played before, but one of the players had bought a PDF of the Adventurer’s book (the game includes an Adventurer’s book and a Loremaster’s book) and had made a character for himself and his son.
There were only three players, so I added a Loremaster character to give them a solid 4 in their party.  They started out in Dale, and I sort of let them organically check out what interested them, and one of the characters gravitated toward a Hobbit I had created before-hand (I came with 6 pre-generated characters, though only one was used) and he ultimately became their fourth.
The party consisted of a Dwarven Treasure-hunter, an Elven Scholar, and a Woodman Warden.  Their fourth, Wiseman Took, was a young Hobbit Wanderer.
I basically ran the introductory adventure in the back of the Loremaster’s book – The Marsh Bell, which centers around tracking down and then rescuing Balin and Ori (yes, that Balin and that Ori) who were waylaid on their way to invite the King of the Eagles to send a delegation to Dale on the five-year anniversary of the Battle of Five Armies.  I don’t normally use published adventures, but I have a sick baby and as a result much less time to plan than I usually have.
The opening bit was all just improvised with the player-characters exploring Dale and making a few basic dice-rolls.  The Dwarf Treasure-hunter ended up checking out the Toy-Market with Wiseman Took.  The Elf Scholar visited the Ravensgate District seeking a library, curious about what passes for history and lore among mortals.  He met a well-to-do retired guardsman who had spent his reward for standing with Bard to fight Smaug on a big new house and on recovering scrolls and books from the ruins of Dale.  The Woodsman Warden got pulled into an archery competition with some of the King’s Guards, and won.  As a result, many of the guards who made money betting on him to win took him out for a bender.
After a scene in the court of King Bard when the PCs all meet each other, they went right into The Marsh Bell adventure, pretty much as written.  We got about halfway through, and should complete it next session.
Since this is my first time running The One Ring, and I never really understand a system until I run it a few times no matter how much I read it, during the course of the session I was doing a lot of referring back to the books.  I tried not to let it bog down the game too much, and for the most part things kept moving.  There were a couple water breaks while I searched for one rule or another.
I’d love if the index in the back of each book was rewritten.  It’s kind of like the Yellow Pages back in the old days – nothing is under the heading I’d think it was under.
That being said, I don’t think the session was bogged down, and considering I only did about 5 hours of preparation for a 3 hour game, including creating 6 characters for it, it was a lot smoother than most games would be.  Trying to run D&D or GURPS, Burning Wheel or Dresden Files for the first time under those conditions would be a nightmare.  With The One Ring, it was very possible.
I personally like the system a lot.  I like the simple dice mechanic, the easy cues for when good or bad things should happen (there is an Eye of Sauron and a G-rune for Gandalf on the Feat die, a d12 that is used for every roll).  It’s easy and intuitive to see when you have a great or extraordinary success, especially with the custom dice that come with the game, but the custom dice themselves are still very simple.  I’m a big fan of the 3rd Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or the tactical board game Descent, but the custom dice with new symbols can present a bit of a learning-curve.
The only thing that threw the players off is when some of the cues for good things came up but they still failed the roll.  This wasn’t a big deal, but was a bit of a mixed message.  Otherwise, they seemed to perform pretty well for new characters – a squad of four Orcs were dispatched without a ton of trouble, but still had a couple of them scared.  They still felt relatively heroic when doing things they were very good at (the Scholar using Lore, the Warden using Hunting, and so on).
My main wish is that they had extra sets of the custom dice – they aren’t necessary, but they’re cool and quicker to use, but the one that comes with your boxed set is all you can get for now.
I am a huge Tolkien fan, and I like this game a lot.  I can see a ton of research and care that went into the game text, the trait choices, the words used to describe things and so on.  The books are replete with quotes and references to passages from the books, and I love it.
There are aspects of the game we haven’t gotten to yet – Corruption for example, and advancement, but from reading them I think they will continue to be interesting and fun.  I especially want to see how Corruption works – I can absolutely see how that system in particular was inspired by characters like the Master of Lake-Town, Thorin Oakenshield once Smaug is dead, Denethor and even Smeagol/Gollum.  Love it.
Next Time
I’m going to give the characters some Shadow and see what happens.  They’re all afraid to spend their Hope, partly for that reason, so I doubt we’ll see any significant incident, but I’m curious what the impact will be of making a few Shadow tests.
I’m also psyched about the Fellowship Phase, maybe for a third session.  It’s something that the players have never encountered before (not having played Pendragon or Mouse Guard, or other games with this kind of “down-time” mechanic spelled out) and I’m curious if they’ll be able to use it or if they’ll just kind of wait for me to throw out the next challenge or situation.

More on The One Ring – Designer Interviews

I’m playing GenCon catch-up, and am hunting down what information is coming out about the things that I’m interested in, like Burning Wheel Gold and The One Ring.  On, I saw that someone had linked a bunch of designer interviews which can be found on YouTube.  Here is the link to the list.

Here’s what I’m watching right now, a discussion of the tighter focus for The One Ring than in past games.  You won’t be able to play a Rider of Rohan or a Knight of Gondor right off the bat, and I think it may be a good thing, design-wise.  It’s definitely a good move, supplement-wise.  Assuming the game takes off, it’ll probably be a bit like Dark Heresy leading to Rogue Trader – new settings and options released as semi-new games in themselves.