Monthly Archives: October 2020

Roleplaying in Middle Earth & magic

Middle Earth is a fantastic fantasy world and it can be used for tabletop roleplaying games. There are games designed with Middle Earth in mind (MERP by Iron Crown, The One Ring by C7, Adventures in Middle Earth by C7), but they are all out of print. Given the vast amount of Middle Earth content available elsewhere it should be quite fine to use any fantasy roleplaying system not written for a specific setting, right? I particularly like the simplicity of OSR. Well, it is that thing with magic.

Magic in fantasy roleplaying games

Magic in fantasy RPGs is most often about spells. Sometimes they are spectacular and action oriented. Often there are clerics getting their powers from deities, and sorcerors taming raw magic power.

This is not obviously a good match for Middle Earth. Clerics praying to Valar for spells is kind of unheard of. Saruman and Gandalf use magic, but not so easily and not very spectacularly, and they are Maia (half god-like spirits) not men. Powerful elves have some magic abilities. But regular men being educated wizards casting fireballs is quite not in the books.

Magic in Middle Earth

I am presuming a (late) Third Age campaign.

There is definitely magic in Middle Earth. Many magical items are mentioned. There are things like the river horses that swept away the nazgul outside Rivendell, the tempest Saruman used to stop the fellowship from crossing the misty mountains, and whatever was done to Theoden.

However, most magic is very old, connected directly with Elves, or connected to Maia.

When Sauron appeared in Dol Guldur he was thought to be a Necromancer. So the free people of Middle Earth found the existence of a necromancer a possibility (more likeely than the return of Sauron). If a powerful necromancer could have appeared there should also exist magic practitioners.

The question is, how and to what extent can magic be available to the player characters, and their enemies?

What are we looking to solve?

Obviously, if GM and players agree, then so is it: Clerics worhipping Valar and fireballs. However, I think we can do better.

Also, if we want much magic (like in Forgotten Realms) then perhaps it is better to play in setting with more open magic (like FR). But I think we can do better.

Sam feared that Gandalf would turn him into something unnatural. In the movie Gimli warns the hobbits of the elf witch who lives in Lorien […] all under her spell and are never seen again. No one in the fellowship (except Gandalf) had imagined the Balrog in their darkest dreams. So I argue that it is in the essential nature of Middle Earth that unexpected magic and supernatural things can happen. If you mostly remove magic you actually turn your Middle Earth game into less than it deserves to be.

I would like to have a Middle Earth where magic is not at all commonplace, but where it can feasibly and arguably exist. Ideally, I would like to interpret and explain magic so that I can mostly use simle OSR rules, with moderation.

Ideas and possibilities

I will now present some arguments for why (OSR style) magic could be used to some degree in a late Third Age Middle Earth RPG campaign.

Alatar and Pallando: Tolkien wrote in a letter about the two blue Istari: I suspect they were founders or beginners of secret cults and ‘magic’ traditions that outlasted the fall of Sauron. This is clearly an opening for the existence of sorcerors or wizards in Middle Earth, even though they played no part in the books.

Religion: We don’t read in the books about clerics praying and sacrificing to Valar. But the Third age is 3000 years old, and it is not hard to imagine that the free peoples were actually worshipping and praying. That works of fiction do not mention religion does not mean religion can not exist. The most important building in Gondor was obviously not a cathedral, that we know. But can there be no shrines, nowhere, at all?

However, worshipping is one thing, being granted spells is a different story.

Valar: Since the end of Second Age, Valar has a kind of non-intervention policy. However, they sent the Istari to Middle Earth on a mission. Someone sent Gandalf back as the white wizard after the fight with the Balrog. So I think it is unnecessarily restrictive to imagine they have no power whatsoever in Middle Earth.

Maia: The Maia helped Valar create the world, so they are powerful magical spirits creating and changing reality. All of them are not named and they are not numbered. Gandalf said: There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world. The Balrog had been hidden for long times when the dwarves disturbed it. I think as a GM you have quite some space to use unmentioned Maia as source of magic powers.

End of Third Age: The Valar has been quite absent for three millennia. Sauron is rising but driven from Dol Guldur, Smaug is killed, and large parts of Middle Earth (Arnor) is largely desolate and open. The Istari is not supposed to use force, but Saruman has other plans. This is a situation with two factors:

  • it is a power vacuum – there for somone (Maia or other) to fill
  • the rules are rewritten – Istari are failing their mission

And things can have been going on for centuries quite secret in the background.

Multiverse: The first chapter of Silmarillion does not start with These events took place in a little corner of the multiverse. No other creation myths start like that either. Nevertheless the multiverse idea is that different game settings exist in simultaneously and that the deities can be present in several of them. If Middle Earth is really left alone by the Valar, why would not some other power show interest in it?

Leave it open

I am not suggesting that you as a GM write down exactly who is granting or teaching what magic powers in Middle Earth and tell your players all about it. That serves no purpose and the players need not know.

What you tell the players is that just as the fellowship did not know about the Balrog, they also don’t know about all powers of Middle Earth.

You can tell that the Istari – or other unknown Maia – during the last millennia of the third age may have taught, shared or granted magic to smaller groups of rather unknown spellcasters. The characters know nothing of this, of course, but the players may ask.

You are now free, with moderation, to introduce spellcasters as part of your adventures.

And if a players wants to be a cleric, wizard, sorceror or warlock, it can be done. It may come with risks though

  • being accused of witchcraft and black magic is always dangerous
  • that magic teacher or spell-granting-deity, who is it really?

Sauron decieved the Numenoreans to worship Morgoth and make human sacrifices.

Conclusion

I think it is possible to run a Middle Earth campaign with a simple OSR system (or your favorite game) and use the magic system of that game mostly the way it is. That does not mean that magic appears in Middle Earth just as it does in Forgotten Realms (or some other hi-magic setting). It just means that magic is possible.

I don’t suggest you to turn Middle Earth into a hi-magic setting. But I also think it is a mistake to have so little magic that there is nothing mysterious or unexpected to the players and their characters to discover.

D&D: OSR or 5th edition?

There are many versions of D&D and there are things to be aware of before you just go with the latest and very popular 5th edition.

All versions of D&D and the so called Old-School-Revival retroclones share many things. Characters have hit dice depending on class (1d4 to 1d12 per level), with slightly more generous dice in newer versions.

Monsters also have hit dice (usually number of d8 HP). Look at this little table of average HP for different monsters in different versions:

AD&D 1eAD&D 2eD&D 3eD&D 5e
Men/Bandit1-6 (4)2d8+2 (11)
Bugbear3+1 (15)3+1 (15)3d8+3 (17)5d8+5 (27)
Hydra (5H)5 (23)5 (23)5d10+28 (55)15d12+75 (172)
Owlbear5+2 (25)5+2 (25)5d10+25 (52)7d10+21 (59)
Werewolf4+3 (21)4+3 (21)3d8+7 (21)9d8+18 (58)
Zombie2 (9)2 (9)2d12+3 (16)3d8+9 (22)

Weapons make roughly the same damage (Longsword 1d8) in all versions.

About Men/Bandit, Monster Manual for 1e states: For every 20 bandits encountered there will be an additional 3rd level fighter. Compare this to 5e, where every bandit essentially is level 2.

Consequences for fights

Fights in 1e/2e are faster because enemies have less hitpoints. They are also less detailed than 3e/5e where special abilities, feats, action economy, bonus actions and reactions are part of every round. In 1e/2e it is more like you have one attack and you can move.

You can argue however you want: rolling/counting to 21 (werewolf 2e) is quicker than rolling/counting to 58 (5e).

Sometimes this difference is called “fighting as battle vs fighting as sport”.

5e is more demanding on the DM and the Players when it comes to tactics. It is more like a miniature war game or collectible card game where it pays of for the players to create combos, optimize characters and prepare tactics for their group or characters.

Consequences for the World

AD&D 1e/2e comes with the idea that most people in the world are common people. They have no class and no special abilities. This applies to bandits, soldiers but also to orcs and goblins that the PCs may encounter. Veteran was the title of a 1st level fighter in Basic D&D.

D&D 5e comes with the idea that common enemies are much more than ordinary people. Veteran in 5e monster manual has 9d8+18 HP.

Consequences for your Campaign

Don’t be mistaken and believe that 5e is deadlier and more difficult. HP is not everything, 5e is balanced differently when it comes to AC, saving throws and other things. Many people witness that the characters become super heroes quite quickly in 5e.

5e allows you to throw in more powerful goblins to challenge your more powerful characters. AD&D expects you to challenge the players with genuinely more powerful monsters, or more goblins using other tactics.

To me, AD&D feels like the PCs are becoming heroes in the same world as they started. But 5e feels like a game where the PCs travel to new places where everything is much more powerful and dangerous than where they came from (like in World of Warcraft, with different regions for players of different power).

OSR – Old School Revival

I would argue that this difference between AD&D on one hand, and 3e/5e on the other hand is significant. You can not quite play the same way in AD&D and 5e, and if you try you may end up disappointed.

After many years of not playing D&D at all, I just bought D&D 5e without thinking too much about the differences. I expected to use it like AD&D 2e. I think that was a mistake, I am not happy with 5e, and I am going back.

I am not alone. Many people prefer older versions of D&D and old style of play (Old School Revival). You and your group can make your choice!

When it comes to OSR there are many options to AD&D 1e/2e! Basic D&D (or Classic) was a simplified version of AD&D 1e (that is a simplification) that for the purposes of this article is similar to AD&D 1e/2e and different from 3e/5e. There are also retroclones that are newly edited and highly compatible inoffical versions of D&D.

AD&D 1e: Can be bought printed or as PDF from dmsguild.com. I am too young to ever have played it, I bought it for fun recently, and I don’t quite feel like playing it. It is complex in unnecessary ways.

AD&D 2e: Can be bought printed or as PDF from dmsguild.com. If you like a more advanced game, this may be your best OSR option.

Basic D&D: Can be bought as PDF from dmsguild. There are different versions (Holmes, Moldvay B/X, Mentzer BECMI) and the last version was packaged in a single book called Rules Cyclopedia that can be bought as PDF or print from dmsguild.

Basic Fantasy RPG: An entirely free to download clone.

Dungeon Crawl Classics: Based on Basic D&D, it adds a lot of innovation and it is more of a different game. Perhaps not for beginners.

Old School Essentials: A premium B/X clone. You get more content for less money if you go for Rules Cyclopedia. OSE is a arguably nicer if you prefer less is more, it has a better look and feel, and it is probably the best beginners game.

Conclusion

Play whatever version of D&D with your friends that you like! But do not just get D&D 5e assuming it is just the latest, most revised and best version. It is a rather different game from the old games of the 70s-80s-90s that made D&D popular. The differences may be subtle at first, but will become more important over time.