Emulating "Lord of the Rings" in RPG

Continuing the discussion from Episode 123: Determinedly Cheerful Or Just Obtuse:

Consider, for example, the James Bond 007 RPG. It seeks to emulate the action of the James Bond films, in which (a) Bond has multiple similar adventures, and (b) by premise, other people in the setting are doing similar things, some of them at a lower level.

The Lord of the Rings, in contrast, is about Frodo undertaking a deed that is utterly unique in the history of his world. Fingolfin, Beren, Ëarendil, Gil-Galad, and Elendil are heroes perhaps as important as Frodo, but for doing things that are quite different in kind.

That’s the difference between a Middle-earth RPG and a Lord of the Rings RPG.


I have seen multiple boardgames about the Ring-quest, but I don’t believe I have seen an RPG which explicitly made that adventure its goal.

Neither have I, and I don’t expect to, because it would be a fatuous project.

I broached the topic because I think it explains something about the history of repeated disappointments that people have had to tried campaigns set in Middle-earth because they loved Lord of the Rings.

My friend Sean Case used to say that it is better to run an RPG in a setting that got wasted on a second-rate story, and not in the setting of your favourite.


(There was an introductory D&D adventure in White Dwarf, #38 dated February 1983, which was meant to be the Mines of Moria, the one that famously started arguments by rating Gandalf as an 8th level cleric, but it was much more “use your knowledge of the setting as a substitute for knowing the rules” than “play the actual story from the book”.)

I don’t think it’s (just?) a story quality issue. I’ve never heard of a role-playing implementation of The Belgariad, either as a commercial effort (which could have been prevented by the authors if they were that way inclined; I have no idea) or as a fan-work. And I think in that case it’s because the world is very shallow: the only bits that have been created are the bits that the party are doing their thing in front of, and if you ask what’s down that road rather than this you have very little basis for making a determination. But similarly to LotR, the only stories we have as an example are the big stories.


I was part of a pretty ambitious One Ring game a few years back that failed mostly from player unfamiliarity (including me) with a play-by-email/post format.

The biggest issue mechanically I struggled with was that the Hope mechanic required the GM to have lots of options available. Like if all four party members fail a check but could succeed with a Hope spend the GM has as many as 24 options to plan. Also Hope played as a wasting resource. It never came back as fast as it was spent but success often depended on it. And not just “did I find the clue” but “was I critically injured” and “are we so lost we’ll arrive well after what we’re trying to do would have mattered.” So One Ring played a lot more like Call of Cthulhu than D&D.

Here was the campaign planning statement (I was a player not the GM, credit to the GM) and I think it managed to find a good way to interact with the world from how play went:

“The premise of the game is that it’s several years after the Battle of Five Armies and a few years before the final meeting of the White Council, the meeting that ended with Saruman deciding to fortify Isengard and breed orcs and go to war to claim the Ring for himself. Saruman the White, always jealous of Gandalf and watching him, noticed that Gandalf did a big complicated thing, in guiding Thorin and company to the defeat of Smaug. He decides that he needs some mortal agents of his own, and asks Radagast the Brown to assemble a team. Radagast puts out the call and convenes the player-characters at his home on the edge of Mirkwood, where he gives them the task of surveying one of the ruined outposts of Dol Guldur, then reporting what they find to Saruman in Isengard. Assuming you complete this assignment, Saruman then becomes your patron, dispatching you on missions to gather the hidden lore and secrets of Middle-Earth, the better to fight the Enemy…

Hence the name of the game, Angrenost, which is the old Elvish name for Isengard.”


What concerns me (as I think I mentioned in passing in the episode) is that, as in Pendragon, the most important stuff is being done by particularly people in particular ways. So:

  • you can be those guys, but then you don’t have choices; or
  • you can be someone other than those guys, but then you aren’t doing the really important stuff that’s why you came to the setting in the first place.

I’ve heard people say similar things about the ends of the metaplots of both Torg (War’s End) and Cyberpunk 2020 (Stormfront/Shockwave), in which the NPCs who’d been present in the background of the campaign got to do all the neat stuff in cut scenes while the PCs stood around applauding.


I agree with that.

A lot of it depends on the folks at the table wanting to be in the places and situations from
the fiction they like.

It’s a bit on the psychology of play kind of thing but I think that the aspect of something like Middle Earth or Star Wars that’s most attractive is repetition of the tropes. If it’s too tight to the source it’s boring. If it’s not a source that folks are invested in it fails to engage. If it’s too far off from the source linking it to the source at all doesn’t carry weight.

Maybe it’s that there’s a failure state dependent on the connection to the material of the folks at the table which is just one more failure axis to have to worry about. And the bigger the franchise and the closer it is to “12” the tougher that can be to manage at the table.

And who needs more axes of failure to worry about at the table, right?

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Star Wars helped by having lots of stuff happening in the background, so it was possible to picture a heroic smuggler captain who wasn’t Han Solo. The Death Star is blown up, but the Empire is still there. LotR and the Belgariad and Pendragon only really have the one great big story, and the world is different when it’s done. They make a virtue of it, in fact:

“And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got – you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”


I think the original Dragonlance setting had very similar problems.


On the face of it, at least in LotR, there’s a war happening, and wherever there’s a war there should be lots of opportunities for smaller stories even underneath the overall narrative; smaller battles even if the war is won by someone else. LotR feels a little unique in that we already feel like we cover all the major theatres of war (and there aren’t that many of them), and the War of the Ring is actually over with pretty quickly. There just doesn’t seem to be any scope to make a meaningful difference beyond the heroes who utterly defeat all the dark forces forever with their mission, whereas Star Wars has a much wider scale over a longer period of time, and small battles can still feel meaningful. I also think it’s easier for most roleplayers I know to emulate the more flippant style of Star Wars than the more classical romantic style of LotR (or Pendragon). Sure, you can play hobbits, but we already know pretty much all of the hobbits who ever did anything beyond the Shire from the books, and it starts to stretch credulity to play more.

A further problem with LotR is the power imbalance in the Fellowship; the point is in some ways that these seemingly unimportant hobbits can perform deeds as great as the mightiest beings in Middle Earth, which is a great narrative, but in traditional RPG terms it means you have a near-immortal wizard, some of the finest fighters in the world, and some small chaps with high Constitution scores all in the same party. It feels a little like the Dr Who RPG problem, which I know has been tackled a few times with varying success (the best one seeming to be that the Doctor is an NPC).
Does the One Ring game address that at all?


Just so. Those are all qualitatively different from the main action of Lord of the Rings. The heroes of those stories prevail (even if they die) by the exercise of valour, strength, steadfastness, skill in battle, and cunning in war; not, unlike Frodo, by hope and pity and the grace of God. Aragorn’s might and valour are important, yes, but it is hope, pity, and humility that let him achieve what none of the other kings of the Dûnedain ever managed. There is a myriad of splendid adventures available in Middle-earth, but only one quest of Mount Doom.

If you were attracted to a game set in Middle-earth because you were inspired by the Silmarillion or even The Hobbit you might find such adventures satisfying, but if you’re looking for a game that will be like The Lord of the Rings, I believe, they are bound to miss the mark.


Interesting convo, I just have a very small remark.

Having played back in the day both LotR and Star Wars (the 90s, ahhh, the memories) I never found that not being the main characters was an issue, but what the adventure was like. As it has been mentioned, the world was rich enough to provide all that side adventuring, so just name dropping or helping very distantly any of the main plots of the books/movies (and this was before Mandalorians and Rogue One new additions) was exciting enough.

I must admit that most of the games I played have been in worlds that are a lot more open, without a big plot being the centre of that universe (Vampire: The Masquerade, Call of Cthulhu, Rokugan on the Legend of the Five Rings or the Forgotten Realms setting for D&D) and they all fed from a very rich background. In all fairness, I think every RPG I have played intended the rags to riches/small group of adventurers predestined to greatness, but I never played long enough any of those to reach such climax, because life, other commitments, lack of GM/DM perseverance, etc. Would it have been nice to get there? Hell, yes. But not reaching that level never put me off playing again.


Even more of a side note: the feeling I get from a lot of modern Star Wars product is not the huge open world of the classic RPG days but a tiny world in which the same people keep turning up again and again.


I think that’s more true of the films than the TV shows, although I don’t plan to watch any more of them honestly so I may not be best to comment.


So looking back over the one ring core book and our play experience this was visible in how the Adventuring Phase worked and how the dice worked.

The adventuring phase involved many more checks of the “overland hex travel” and “investigation” categories than a typical F20 experience.

This diffused the spotlight from being a killing machine if that makes sense.

Then my experience was that dice checks, as a new character, were fairly difficult. So the Hope resource was harder to hoard.

The Hope resource is refilled from the party Fellowship pool. The fellowship pool refills at the beginning of a session. Having a Hobbit in the party adds an extra point to the fellowship pool which is ordinarily one per PC. So Hobbits count double for fellowship.

It may have been that our on-line play format led to “sessions” being too long but my experience was that the fellowship pool could not keep up with the use of Hope. So even though the fellowship pool refilled the party had spent more Hope than was in the pool because we wanted to not get lost in the forest or be overcome by fear. We did not have Hobbit in the party. One more point of fellowship wouldn’t have saved us but it would have relieved pressure on the party in more than trivial fashion.

We may have just had terrible luck, I’ve not looked at the probabilities.

So there’s that straightforward mechanical fellowship boost and there’s the part where the hobbit may just be better at some overland travel or investigation task.