Thursday, February 7, 2013

Running a Middle Earth RPG with D&D


With “The Hobbit” so recently released, I thought that I would be fun to tackle running a Tolkien game in D&D. It’s fairly easy, but not exactly easy.

A good time period for adventuring would be immediately following the Lord of the Rings, during restoration of the crown in Gondor. The plot can go anywhere and you don’t have to worry about blowing away the existing plot. Aragorn is now king. The Allies are successful. However, all is not good. Sauron may be gone, but not all his servants and allies. There is still great evil out there, and also certainly, there’s more than enough enemies for the players to hunt down. Given his shortage of arms, the King has called upon his subjects and allies to fight against evil on their own initiative even as a new villain amasses power among the darkness.

At this point, you can just turn the crank. There’s pirates on the seas, brigands terrorizing the land, orcs and goblins dwelling in the shadow, and whatever evil Sauron succeeded in rousing up that the Fellowship never faced. There are surely great captains who were made, allied, or awakened by Sauron.

On top of that, you can add people who are not happy that some nobody ranger from the north now calls himself king. They are than happy to conspire against this pretender and work against his interest. This leads to fights for the the crown.

Along with that, there’s the ordinary problems when the government has been shattered. Unpaid armies look for loot. Opportunists take advantage of lawlessness. Treasure hunters break into old tombs. Unhappy people rebel against their rulers. And many ancient things have appeared about the world, few of them good.

For a D&D system, I would choose 4th. Middle-Earth doesn’t seem to have any sort of clerical or priestly magic. If it does, that sort of magic is very minor, so ability to build a party without a cleric is necessary. I think that 4th edition handles healing sans clerics better than most.

4th also holds its own with strictly martial classes. Although there are magical characters, they are outnumbered by the ordinary man. In many ways, Tolkein’s stories are about ordinary men in the face of magic.

For those who do use magic, magic is mostly invisible. You don’t see magic happening even when it happens, so picking classes that don’t throw fireballs everywhere is important. Classes that are partially magical would seem the better choice. Bards would fit well while wizards throwing fireballs would not. Invokers work surprisingly well.

Of course, you could ignore that all together and just let your characters be special. You can have just as much ignoring those recommendations. Want 3rd edition wizards and druids running rampant over trolls? Sure!  I wouldn’t pick that, but doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t.

I recommend slowing down level advancement. In my opinion, Middle-Earth games play best in levels 1-10, especially if the game goes a long time. A game that advances quickly winds up feeling like a treadmill. Each encounter must generate treasures so that the players can keep up their stats. In a slower game, the treasures can come out far more slowly. Those that do appear more frequently can be single use items. The appearance of permanent items becomes noteworthy, and hopefully, hold a higher significance in the story. Some “magic” items can just be ordinary items upgraded with additional plusses. We never know anything about Gimli’s axe or Legolas’s bow, but we can assume a simple bonus or two.

You can explain bonuses in the game in a way that avoids some degree of magic. A gift ribbon from Galadrial, while tied to a weapon, may make you remember her light, making that weapon holy. Your father’s axe may give you a +1 to hit because it fills you with fidelity. A draught could fill you with health, giving you bonuses to hit and damage.

In Middle-Earth, there seems to be two tiers of magic items: rare wonders, and batshit crazy powerful magic that mortals should not wield and cause more woe than good. Glamdring and Sting belong in the former category, while the One Ring, the seeing stones, and the Arkenstone belong to the second. What Lord of the Rings style game would feel right without such things?

The characters should get rewards beyond magic items and wealth. Possible rewards include titles, lands, fortresses, followers, secrets, friendships, knowledge, and trusts. Such rewards also include responsibilities. Beyond that, I haven’t given that reward system much thought. In some cases, there will be no reward beyond achieving a goal. Perhaps the real reward is in lives saved or people helped?

At some point it may help to freeze levels. Mortals can only get so good. Also, as you advance in levels, the composition of useful monsters change. There’s a point at which the monsters no longer feel like Middle-Earth monsters. At that point, you just need to pack up the game and call it quits. All the more reason to slow down leveling.