Roleplaying Magic and the World of Tolkien’s Arda

Whenever I attempt to relax, one of the things that I do is watch a YouTube channel called Men of the West, created by a user with the handle of Yoystan. In it, he generally talks about aspects of J.R.R. Tolkien’s World of Arda, but specifically events, characters, artifacts, races, locations, and media pertaining to Middle-Earth. Fans like Yoystan are far more well-versed in Arda, and Tolkien’s works and backgrounds than myself, but they have inspired me to do some of my own crude and shallow research through the Legendarium of Tolkien. But there is one topic that has always intrigued me about Middle-Earth, especially with interest in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, and my own Dungeons and Dragons role-playing.

Magic.

Of course, magic in this case is a misnomer. Perhaps the better word for what I am particularly interested in with regards to Tolkien’s Arda is its metaphysics, or how the rules of that world allow for certain events, and actions that we might deem as paranormal or supernatural to take place. Metaphysics in the world of Arda are predicated on its creation.

Arda was created by the Song of Eru Illuvatar and his Valar and Maiar spirits. It allows for song and oaths to shape the fate of those that utilize them. Prophecy and prophetic dreams also exist in this world. However, there are some crafts that exist in Arda thanks to the Valar, and their Maiar servants that were taught to the early ancestors of the peoples of Arda: Elves, Dwarves, and Men: specifically herb-lore, Dwarven Moon-letters, artificing such as ring-crafting, and even something akin to telepathy “thought-opening” and “Unwill”: though the latter is a rare skill. Arda also exists in two worlds, the mortal plane, and the “Unseen World” where Elves — or at least High Elves — exist simultaneously: perhaps allowing them, and other dark beings, to utilize spells of illusion or shape-changing. Certainly, there seems to be a category of metaphysics called sorcery: which is dark power that can be taught to Men — humans — by Maia such as the Dark Lord Sauron. Curses also exist that can keep human spirits from passing on, and certain areas of land can have traumatic events such as wars and battle imprinted upon them, or be sensitive to certain kinds of powers, or be protected by them.

The only ones that can really wield anything close to obvious magical  power are the Istari — or the Five Wizards — who are, in turn, Maia spirits given human form by their Valar patrons from Aman or Valinor to advise and guide the peoples of Middle-Earth against Sauron’s tyranny and manipulations. And the Wizards are extremely limited in what they can actually do, to make sure their powers do not dominate the peoples of Middle-Earth or actually cause irreparable damage to Arda itself.

Essentially, what I call the metaphysical situation of Arda is a subtle magic of sorts: forces of that universe — which is, arguably, supposed to be a mythological past of our own world, before the metaphysical rules of our reality changed many times — and something that can only be utilized in particular situations, contexts, or at certain times. George R.R. Martin does something similar with magic in Westeros and Essos, though there is a lot more emphasis on blood magic, and aspects of deities that may or may not exist in the forms that their worshipers believe them to be. It would make sense that Tolkien’s understated, limited use of magic — or metaphysics — influenced Martin and so many others, including the creators of Dungeons and Dragons that made spells far more overt.

So, one thing that the Men of the West YouTube channel also focused on at one point were attempts at an Expanded Arda Universe: through gameplay. And one thing that it has always found lacking is the “magic-system” in Lord of the Rings Online — a game that Yoystan otherwise praises in every other way — or even its selection of player races, and antagonists.

And, after reading up on this, I started to think to myself: what would a role-playing game — online or table-top — look like if it were based on what we knew about Tolkien’s Arda down as much to the rune as possible? This led me to writing out some thoughts on my social media on the matter, hoping to get input from other Game Masters and other players I know, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this deserves a post. And while I am not a Tolkien scholar, I do have some ideas as to what this world would look like, how it would be possible to construct a campaign, and what such a game could be about.

It’d be a question of looking at the heart of Middle-Earth and Arda, and focusing on the idea that “there is hope in the greatest darkness.” That is the spirit of Tolkien’s world. With this central theme in mind, should at least a table-top Game Master and player fellowship choose to use it, it would be a case of the metaphysics of the world shaping what happens in it.

Setting a game in Arda during the First and Second Ages, for instance, would be a very different endeavour and situation than making it situated in the Third Age with which many fans are so familiar. I would argue that it would be easier to have High Elf players in the First and Second Ages, for instance, along with a Higher Mythic Age element of Maiar abound and more supernatural beings like werewolves, Balrogs, and even Dragons. Roleplaying in Beleriand, the lost continent of Middle-Earth and central to many Elven Kingdoms and even old Dwarven ones could be fascinating. Of course, you could have intrigue and some battles from Numenor, the greatest civilization of Men as it is referred to, if you want to spend time in the Second Age. The Silmarillion and other Books of Lost Tales on those times could be useful but they are very mythological, though there could be some fun in that.

But in the Third Age, around the time of The Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit is what I was — and many others would be — thinking about setting a game in with regards to Arda. If it is a tabletop role-playing situation, the Game Master can set limits on who is what in this world, and it would be easier to do so. For instance, High Elves have tremendous skill in their Arts and knowledge — and can see into the Unseen World and sense Wraiths and the like — which might give a fellowship an unfair advantage. Also, there aren’t that many High Elves beyond the titular characters in the novels at this stage in the game. Likewise, in a video game or a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, you can just limit what classes and races players can be: with non-player characters being exceptions, of course. And, it goes without saying, that there are no other Wizards aside from the Five.

What I would do is something like this. I would take all the different races and genealogies that commonly exist in Middle-Earth around the time of the tail end of the Third Age: the Forest Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits of course, and Men — Humans — and even include some Rangers with their Numenorean blood to make things interesting. So far so good. I would have Warriors in their permutations as Horse Riders, Archers, and even Rangers. Have some Hobbit burglars even just to be a troll (and in this case, not a literal one, as they will be enemies, trolls). The Forest Elves are a combination of different Elven families or ethnicities and perhaps I would grant them some higher statistics, and knowledge.

Healing in the game would happen naturally. If you are injured, you need to rest, or have medicine applied to you. It’d be like the role-playing system in the tabletop version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you get injured, you have to take time to heal. Of course, if your Human or Elf knows some herb-lore, you could expedite the process, but it is not an instant heal situation. In fact, I’d be really tempted to list one’s characteristics as Fëa and Hröa. These are two very fascinating concepts, created in Tolkien’s Elvish which are apparently translated as “spirit” or “soul” and “body.” I would have Hröa as one’s health meter, and Fëa as being necessary to perform certain Arts, herb-lore, crafts, and the like. The more powerful your Fëathe more sensitive you are to the Unseen World, and the more complex Arts you can understand and perform. Perhaps this would be a dynamic more suited to Elf characters, for obvious reasons, and perhaps some Numenorean descendants.

I would allow for some characters to be able to increase these basic traits. Elves, for instance, can increase Fëa and Hröa if they learn certain lore, and can start to perceive the World around them such as it is, perhaps even more than their heightened senses already do. However, I would make them more susceptible to any mood-affecting Arts or sorcery, and if their Fëa isn’t sufficiently recovered through meditation or what not, it can affect them physically. It would be interesting, however, for a non-High Elf to develop to a point where they can almost match their kin. I am even tempted to play with the concept of Elf characters being reincarnated from the Halls of Mandos if they are killed in battle, or they die, while Human characters — if they die — have to move on as their souls go to a place beyond Arda, and the player can have the option of playing as a descendant or a kinsman of theirs. It’d be closer in keeping to the metaphysical structure of Tolkien’s world.

It would really be cool if characters can learn how to train their traits through finding lore, or artifacts, or even wise people who might have, at one time, been taught a few tricks by other Elves, Dwarf smiths, or even Istari. It would be limited, of course, as secrets can be distorted or lost over time, and the power of Arda is not the same as it once was. But just think about an Elf learning how to sense the two Worlds, or a Dwarf figuring out how to make Moon-letters or doors — with time and effort — that can keep others away, or Humans learning powerful Oaths, songs or poems of power to bolster the moral of your group or army, some minor Spells, or wisdom. And everyone can learn some secrets of different locations that they find, perhaps even talk with a Maia or two and gain knowledge of subtle but useful skills. Perhaps there is a campaign where they go among the Easterlings and discover a cult dedicated to the Blue Wizards, and discover some lore from them: maybe in an attempt to figure what happened to the two who were lost so long ago, while never actually being anything but ambiguous about it like in Tolkien’s lore unless you want an interpretation.

Of course, you can train your Hröa through learning how to fight, how to survive in the wilderness and scout, to feed yourself, and through exercise and experience in battle. And there could be situations where you need something miraculous to happen, but you can’t just simply call on this power whenever you want: even as an Elf. You have to be in the right place, at the correct time, or like in some D20 systems you have a Fate Dice and you can only call on it once per session or — in this case — once per major event such as being in a battle with a Sorcerer who has a few Wraiths or Barrow-Wights on his or her side, and you have an Elven artifact that you need to repel them with azure light, or the sudden flood of a river in front of you to keep them all back.

It would be easy to find treasures of mithril and Elven blades that react to Orc presence. Orcs, Goblins, Wargs, Trolls — which would be stronger opponents — Mirkwood Spiders, Human Outlaws, Barrow-Wights, and Wraiths would be good antagonist non-player characters that you can fight, and outsmart. Perhaps you find some remnants of older more terrifying powers in remote places in Middle-Earth such as Balrogs, Dragons, or even some Maia that have gone renegade: shapeshifting wolves and vampires. I can see a quest to seek some Teleri elves (seafarers I believe) to find treasures in the waters where Beleriand used to be, or going to the East to see if you can find evidence of the Blue Wizards — as having done their part to divide the Easterlings against Sauron, failing to do so and being killed, or having made cults around themselves — or even trying to find those gosh darned reclusive Ent-Wives if you are particularly fascinated with herb and wood-lore.

You can participate in minor battles that are involved in major events. You could find all kinds of fascinating artifacts such as, again, some Elven blades you can find, some Dwarf-wrought weapons, documents and lore of lost knowledge, perhaps a lost remnant of a Wizard’s staff that wouldn’t even give you a tenth of an Istari’s power but could make for a useful talisman. Hell, you could even find the Lesser Rings of Power: which are practice rings made by Elven craftspeople that could give you … a few minor advantages in certain statistics. Saruman did, after all, examine what he could of ring-lore and maybe there are some samples of it still out there, though whether or not they are influenced by Sauron can be up to interpretation.

It seems like scraps, compared to what the protagonists in the novels encounter or use, and compared to Dungeons and Dragons, but I see all these opportunities as — well — Lost Tales in and of themselves, stories that happen in between the gaps of greater epics that are no less meaningful. They would be character driven games and campaigns, and you can focus on “fellowship” or “the day a group’s courage fails.” You could have an Elf wanting to prove themselves to their people, or a Dwarf wanting to recover their lost smithing, or a human woman masquerading as a man — or not — wanting to fight, a rare halfling that wanders from home and can’t keep their hands to themselves, or an Easterling who simply just wants to gain profit and survive and doesn’t like the influence being exerted on their lands. I’m not sure I would have Beornings — essentially were-bears — exist as player characters, but I would not rule it out in a tabletop situation provided it is roleplayed well. Perhaps Beornings are descendants of Men and Maia with an interesting Fëa as a result.

And just think about these characters meeting canon characters, and having a whole other kind of interaction with them. Elrond could probably, if he so chose, direct you with different kinds of knowledge, or perhaps you can meet a different Gondorian Stewards if you aren’t … quite playing at the end of the Third Age. Perhaps Galadriel has entertained other guests before, or you really got lost in Lothlorien. You might be told by a small village of Hobbits that you are not welcome there, or a passing … grey-robed and bearded man gives you some good pipe-weed, and some sound advice. Maybe even a firework or two, if you are good. Or you meet other original characters who could plausibly exist. Imagine learning how to ride by riders of Rohan, or dying in Dunharrow because you were foolish enough to go into the Mountain … or you find some cursed item just outside of it. And going into a barrow is always fun, or dealing with some Huorns and Ents in Fangorn Forest. There are a lot of possibilities.

This … could work as an online game, but that depends on the interests of the players and how much of an audience such a game world as an MMORPG could gain. Many people are used to flinging fireballs, or instantly healing from a cleric’s spell. Likewise, however, there is a paternalism in Tolkien’s world: with certain peoples of humanity, or races being inherently bad or limited to roles that could also be an issue, not to mention gender-roles.

But this system, as I have thought of it, could also be adopted into its own world. A low or subtle magic world that focuses on exploration and understanding of the environment around you, and the friendships you can forge, the poems and artifacts you can find, the songs you can sing together, and even the food you can make and eat and trade while having your battles with evil.

I guess what I’m saying is that it can be done, and it would be fairly beautiful.  I would attempt a table-top game of either a Lord of the Rings RPG like this, or a world with similar metaphysics. I know The One Ring RPG and Lord of the Rings Online do not quite have this, so I thought I’d just write about it here. Or perhaps only hardcore Tolkienites and scholars could attempt such a thing. I think this is the closest I might ever come to writing in Middle-Earth, though I make no promises. I don’t have any greetings or farewells to make in Elvish, but I hope you enjoyed reading this long digression into possibilities, this place of lore, which I feel belongs on Mythic Bios as it has been a long time since I have made such a ramble. And I wish you well.

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About matthewkirshenblatt

I am a writer and blogger living in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario in Canada. When I'm not writing for the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization and GeekPr0n, I tend to write science-fiction, epic fantasy, horror, literary and mythological revisionisms, and generally weird fiction stories though I have been known to make poetry, television and comic book scripts. Also, when left to my own devices I tend to write weird and strange hybrid creative opinion piece articles like those you will find on this Blog. I am also very interested in comics, video games, Star Wars, table-top role-playing games, Neil Gaiman's works, H.P. Lovecraft, vampires, zombies, and budgies.
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1 Response to Roleplaying Magic and the World of Tolkien’s Arda

  1. Pingback: Roleplaying The Enemy in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda | Mythic Bios

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