Roleplaying The Enemy in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda

I’m not sure how this happened, really. I’d been following Yoystan’s Men of the West YouTube Channel for a while, but I think I really started going back to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda and Middle-Earth because of the season, and also due to roleplaying in a homebrew world with my friends. Last week, I talked about Role-Playing Magic and The World of Arda: basically taking the subtle natural magic of Arda and its world elements and making either a table-top or a massive-multiplayer online role-playing game with those particular aspects in mind. There are a lot of issues with adapting Tolkien’s sagas in that way, of course, and while I touched upon the fact that the players would always be subservient to the overall plotline and need to really have some personal stories as well as referencing to some extent that old paternalism in the Arda narrative with regards to women, and other human ethnicities, there is also the matter of the Orcs.

Yes. You read that right. Orcs. What if someone wants to play an Orc character in Arda? For Everquest and World of Warcraft, even some Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, this would not necessarily be an issue. But Tolkien makes it very clear that orcs are distortions, tortured mutations and descendants of the Elves that didn’t travel to Aman or the Undying Lands, or were captured by the Vala Melkor become the Dark Lord Morgoth before that point. They are warped and twisted, hating themselves, and everyone else around them. There is no noble Horde here against the Alliance of Azeroth. You have these angry, bitter, hateful beings that want to ruin the lives of other races that are more “whole” than they are. This is the same with Trolls, that are mockeries of the tree-like Ents, and even the Easterlings and Southron Men as well as the Black Numenoreans, and more besides of which I do not even have the knowledge. Tolkien makes it clear that these are bad creatures, and people. They have served Morgoth, and Sauron. They despise everything that is beautiful, and good, and true in Middle-Earth. They are the minions of the forces of darkness, and they will go out of their way to destroy even a sliver of hope: the heart of the Tolkien narrative itself.

However, does it really have to be that way? Could the Enemy be just as viable a player faction as the Free-Peoples of Middle-Earth? And can you role-play them in a way that stays true to Tolkien, or perhaps subverts the narrative in a way where it doesn’t take away from the original story, but adds to it? There can’t be light without shadow, after all, despite other philosophies that believe darkness to be a deformation of true radiance. And can you have fun playing the Enemy?

I believe it can be done. If I were to do it, just like the game with the general Free-Peoples that I mentioned in my last article, I would set in as a side campaign during some of the events of the Ages, or in-between lulls between major events in general: the ones that aren’t necessarily world-shattering upon first glance, or at least not obviously so.

So, Orcs are fascinating beings. What is known is that when they aren’t working for Morgoth, or Sauron they often congregate in different tribes where they engage in warlike and violent behaviour to achieve dominance among their people, and power. They are also related to Goblins as well, maybe as an offshoot. You have your warriors, and archers, as well as your Warg Riders: essentially Orcs that ride giant wolves. Goblins can have something akin to group or a nice adaptation of D&D pack tactics when fighting. Another thing to consider is that Orcs aren’t stupid. Of course, there are different breeds or races of Orc as well, but they are all cunning and can create weapons, and devices of war and torment. In fact, I would encourage there to be smart Orcs: beings with basic intelligence, craftiness, cleverness, and of course a thirst for battle.

I would have it so that if you play an Orc, or a Troll you can work your way through the ranks based on your battle prowess, your manipulation, and your cunning. Perhaps you believe that the Valar cursed your ancestors, and left you to suffer. The Lords that you follow, if you do, are the sworn enemies of the dark gods that abandoned you, leaving you to die helpless in a world you didn’t understand until Melkor came, and gave you a new sense of purpose. He changed you, twisted, and moulded you to be fruitful and multiply. This is your land. You love your god, and you hate him in equal measure. But this pain of being you reminds you that you are alive, and it also reminds you of all the other races that take their wholeness for granted. Likewise, perhaps you might not believe the Dark Lord made you, but you follow power for that is how you eat the flesh of others, which is your diet — as you have grown tired of eating your own — and you know that the more powerful and skilled you become, or the more resources you have, the more opportunities you will have for food and plunder.

Likewise, you might not want to follow any Dark Lord and simply plunder for the sake of it. You know, those Dwarves are always trying to kill you and you want a nice safe place in a mountain. Perhaps you’ve heard of Moria, and once the Dwarves dug too greedily and too deep, you sensed the presence of a power that is familiar and grand: something that doesn’t seem to care about you, and would tolerate your presence in a grander place while destroying all others that dare to defy it. Maybe you want treasures and golden baubles from those damned Men that are always roaming around, while having a cave to keep it all in so you can have meat, and loot a plenty as a Troll. Perhaps you want control over a part of the Misty Mountains that another Tribe of Goblin or Orc possesses. So you forge alliances and friendships. You have a broodmate or two. You fight alongside each other, propping each other up until the time when you don’t need the other anymore, or when you get hungry. And, if you do serve a Dark Lord, if you prove yourself you might be worthy of his blessings: of greater weapons, of artifacts forged from Utumno and Angband, or even from the very fires of Mount Doom itself.

I myself don’t know the particulars of Black Speech, that spoken in Mordor, or by the Enemy in general but if there is an enterprising Tolkien scholar of the language out there, I would find the Black Speech equivalents to Fëa and Hröa: perhaps ghâsh as “fire” could represent a dark being’s soul, while snaga, aside from meaning “slave” can also mean “the body.” Things have been made on the backs of slaves, unfortunately, after all, and they have been seen as objects. Perhaps in this culture the Orcs and Trolls — or as they would call themselves and perhaps be called in-game the Uruk and Olog — the former term of which actually being taken from mythology by Tolkien — see their bodies as slaves to their fire or hunger, and act accordingly on that as a virtue. That is merely my idea, and I think interesting enough to consider.

Of course, you also have the Men or humans that serve the Enemy, or have their own designs. Perhaps those from the East and South have their own cultures. The Haradrim have their Mûmakil riders: their oliphant mounts. The Corsairs of Umbar have their excellent seafaring vessels, ships, and skills. The Easterlings have a vast land and many different kingdoms and cultures that can be expanded upon: with their superb constructions of wagons and chariots to supplement their fighting skills. And there are so many others. They could serve the Cult of Melkor, like the fallen Numenoreans did, because they are jealous as all hell over the Elves living forever, and they want immortality, or they despise the former Numenoreans turned into the people of Gondor and Arnor due to their imperialism, or because they were favoured over them by cruel gods. They might just want better lands, or more resources. Some might want revenge for the deaths of kin in so many wars between the West and themselves. Perhaps they even have genuine grievances, or many a few more just want to get away from Sauron. Perhaps the Cult that was introduced in the unfinished New Shadow novel of Tolkien’s has its presence in Mordor or the East and South in different iterations.

And then, you can have some interesting classes too. While there are warriors, Wainriders, archers, your oliphant riders, sailor-lords, and the like, you can have Sorcerers and Witches. These beings can be from the East and South, but even the West. They have learned lore — sorcery — or gained artifacts from dark Maia such as Sauron. Their ghâsh can be improved upon through study of entropy and decay, as well as taking the lives of others through battle and blood sacrifices. Orcs and Trolls can have these powers, this equivalent to magic: though they manifest as poisonous herb-lore, fiendish constructions, spiritual pollution, and berserker rages. If you want to take liberties, you can even say that as a reward for serving your Lord as an Orc or Troll, you could be chosen to help breed the next of your kin: choosing survival of the strongest and the clever to create a chosen bloodline that could lead to Saruman’s Uruk-hai or even Sauron’s Olog-hai: sun-resistant Trolls.

Normal Trolls have their ghâsh drained massively if they are exposed to light, or sunlight, and will turn into stone. Most Orcs can be affected in a similar way, but while they won’t die, you will feel tremendous fear and hatred of the unforgiving light. And if you are a Sorcerer or Witch of Men, you can vastly increase your ghâsh or have it increased if you prove your worth to your Masters, but it will degrade your snaga: and you will become a Wraith over time as your dark spirit from the Other World consumes your body in the mortal one. Trolls and Orcs improve their snaga through learning combat and survival tactics while their ghâsh can collectively increase if they are in larger numbers against an enemy: representing the darkness that they embody.

So, here are some interesting scenarios. You can be powerful Orcs and Men of Saruman that undertake missions for the renegade White Wizard to prove your worthiness and get your time in the breeding pits: to know you will create a new future where your kin will rule the world under the Hand of Isengard: your Clan’s immortality assured as the dominant power under any Dark Lord really. Perhaps you are an agent of Saruman hired to collect some ring-lore that he can’t quite find elsewhere: and while you might not glean the significance of it, he could teach you a few bits of other lore or give you treasures or powers of other kind in exchange. You can be the Corsairs that destroy the fleets of Gondor, and prove your superiority, or one of the Easterlings or Haradrim that either fight each other, or create mutual trading pacts, or successfully back-stab your way into power. Or here is an interesting one: Sauron hears that some strange Blue Wizards have come into the East. He orders you, his best Uruks, and his best disciples of the Cult of Melkor to either apprehend the two Blue Wizards and bring them to him, or kill them. Or perhaps the two are already renegades and will teach you some lore in exchanging for serving them … or, likewise, pretend to be renegades, and teach you that lore to make sure that your lands never fully unify — at least not right away — and delay, if not destroy a fully unified East under Sauron’s banner.

And, who knows? You Easterlings and Southrons can eventually sue for peace with the West, and mutual respect. Maybe Sauron is gone, or you just want a way to get away from him so that you can save your family and your loved ones. Maybe it’s too late for those inducted fully into the Cult of Melkor, but if you have Numenorean blood perhaps you can be an Elf-Friend again and remember the mysteries of Eru Illuvatar. Perhaps you Uruks have had enough. You don’t want to serve these Dark Lords anymore. Perhaps your hatred of the Elves and Men empowers you, but you can see which way the wind is changing. Your new quest is to gain power, but also survive. You go off to find a new home, or a cavern, or a series of tunnels with which to hide from the genocide of your kind, and one day regain your numbers. Perhaps you will even become more clever. And, who knows? Maybe you had Elven and Human ancestry. Maybe you see just a bit of that light in the brokenness you always were … Perhaps it drives you to glorious battle and seek a great end for yourself that will eclipse anything else in your horrible life. Or perhaps … one day … you might become something more.

This … isn’t perfect. Like Black Speech itself, the Enemy was built by Tolkien to be fragmented and broken and brutal. I think you can still preserve that, but show that they have aspirations and personalities of their own. Some might change their ways. Some might die by them. You can tell some good stories, and even make them. I actually view these beings differently now, especially the Orcs and Trolls. While Order of the Stick made me look at Goblin Genocides for what they are in D&D, my own meditations on what happened in H.P. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth with the US Government and the town’s people as genocide — along with reading Ruthanna Emrys’ Innsmouth Legacy series — and my friend and sometime-publisher Gil Williamson’s Prancing Pony: in which the British come to Middle-Earth in the 1800s and see what is left of the people there, including the last of the Uruk-hai.

I don’t mind having the existence of evil or even other darker forces in a game or a world, but I do think having them fleshed out and even thinking out their world view and allowing for change in some places and meaningful stories can amount to a lot. I’ve written a lot more about this than I thought. But I hope this was interesting, if nothing else. It’s good to write such rambles on here again. That’s what Mythic Bios was designed to do after all. Until another time, my friends.

And remember: I see you.


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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