Capturing the "feel" of Tolkien.

I haven't actually tried it, as I just now thought about "what would I use", but I think I might be tempted to go with something in PbtA family of games to try and capture the feel of LotR. Somewhere in between Dungeon World and Sagas of the Icelanders is what I'm looking for. I think the focus on character decision making is right for LotR and the historical material that inspired it. This quote from Faramir covers what I am talking about:

“We are truth-speakers, we men of Gondor. We boast seldom, and then perform, or die in the attempt.

That focus on deeds and oaths and whatnot is key. Specifically for the men in the story and that's where I'd start when looking for the right feels. The flip side is Sauron and Ring, the primary horror of which is that they corrupt and cause men to forswear their oaths and responsibilities. Madness, ruin and fall in Tolkien is all linked closely to oaths and 'right action'.
 

Reynard

Legend
I played TOR.
TOR is a great game. I especially like the Journey mechanics and the Audience mechanics, including how they are ported over to AiME. Unfortunately I have not been able to run more than a couple one shots in either system and so I have not been able to get that Tolkien "feel" using TOR or AiME, since another thing I think is essential is long form play.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
There is also Empire of the Petal Throne, Tékumel, has the deep lore and sense of wonder and horror that is similar to Tolkien, without being on such a beaten path as Tolkien. However, sometimes when I think of Tolkien, I think of CS Lewis reading the Hobbit or LotR, as he was in Tolkien's writing group, laying on his back on the sofa and saying "Not another Elf!" As he was reading. :LOL:
 

ART!

Explorer
It might be worth having those with The One Ring experience talk about which of the rules in that system make the most difference or go the farthest toward creating a Tolkien feel, and how those rules achieve that. Same for Adventures in Middle-Earth.
 

Laurefindel

Adventurer
There are several themes essential to a faithful Tolkien game such as melancholy, corruption, camaraderie, friendship, nobility of ancient bloodlines, abundant but low-key magic, but what I find most important is the opposition of fear and inspiration.

Fear and despair are the greatest weapons of the enemy. From King Theoden's lethargy, to Denethor's folly, to the Nazgul ability to strike fear and panic; fear and despair are what make the good-guys lose.

On the other hand, courage - and especially inspiration - are the heroes' greatest defence. From the desperate laughter of a grieved Eowyn shaking Merry into action, to the aura of leadership of Faramir keeping his troops together, to the healing of Theoden by Gandalf's words, to the dedication of Aragorn keeping Gimly running into Rohan and later through the Path of the Dead, to Frodo's vial of light; the examples abound.

The hardest part is to make the PCs experience the debilitating fear without paralysing the action. There are a few ways of doing so and it's often touch-and-go, but it is very rewarding when it is achieved.
 
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gepetto

Explorer
The feel of LoTR is very much a fallen world to me. You see it all over, there are few settlements, and vast areas of wilderness littered with ruins and monsters. Elder races are fading in numbers and mankind isnt exactly thriving to replace them.

Its all lost kingdoms, fallen cities, empires in ruins and the forces of good very much feeling like they are just barely hanging on, where they arent being actively pushed back.

But its not all grimdark. Its happened slowly enough that most people are just living their lives. All the really bad war stuff has moved on and is happening far away. The results are all over their lives but semi invisibly.

Closest I ever came to that feel was a colonial campaign on a continent far from the originating empire. The colonies were in their 3rd generation. They had believed the continent to be uninhabited by anything civilized but discovered lots of ruins of an older people pretty quickly. Along with learning that the deep woods all over their part of the continent were filled with older, magical terrors.

The whole thing had an early american colonists meets supernatural horror feel. The party were regular colonists who were part of the local militia and so were often tasked with the dangerous job of traveling between small settlements or investigating mysterious happenings and occasionally scouting for resources.
 

pemerton

Legend
I want to be able to emulate the feel of Tolkien's work in an RPG and have had, at best, fleeting success doing so. By "feel" I mean the tone of the work that balances the mundane, the wondrous, and the horrific all at once; the sense of a deep history reaching up to produce the drama of the Now; the archetypes and ideals that yet hold on to humanity and even grittiness to some extent; and, most of all, the tug-of-war between hope and despair.

<snip>

If you look at Tolkien's work and see it as a thing you would want to emulate in play, have you ever managed it? Did it require a ME/LotR game or campaign? What elements were hard? Which seemed to come easily? What do you think makes game "feel" like Tolkien?
Tolkien takes time to revel and reflect in the mundane, pastoral, and everyday of the world instead of constantly bombarding you with the fantastical. Even some of the most fantastical elements - i.e., Tom Bombadil - exist as moments of reflection, calm, and/or whimsy.

<snip>

Tolkien largely operated from a perspective of "hope" in the world and its people, even those that succumbed to evil, who were viewed with pity. So IMHO, an important part of emulating Tolkienesque play would be to frame the fiction in terms of how hope exists and people rising to that hope through their deeds.
I think these two posts do a nice job of capturing what is important to Tolkien-esque feel: history, magic intermingled with the everyday (think even Frodo in his mithril coat), and above all the importance of hope.

I think it's hard to get this feel in a game without willing participation - that is, I doubt that mechanics/system can force it per se. But some mechanics can help.

For romantic fantasy my group has been playing and enjoying Prince Valiant. It would need a little bit of tweaking to incorporate the more magical/fairy tale aspects of JRRT, but probabl not a lot. It certainly allows for hope to matter (because the PC's emotional investment affects the number of dice in the pool)

Buring Wheel provides emotional intensity and forces emotional honesty, which is important to Tolkienesque feel. In my experience it easily pushes towars S&S and so some steps would need to be taken to avoid that - eg maybe use simple combat resolution rather than Fight!; and drop most if not all non-natural magic.

I think a properly-curated heroic to low paragon 4e D&D might also do the job. Psychic damage, as a marker of despair, would be important - and healing surge recovery would be emotional as much as physical. You would need to work out how Diplomacy checks can help heal. (But not so well as to trample on the Healing skill.)

I've been working on a Cortex+ Heroic LotR game. The Doom Pool fits well. History/lore works by having the players establish relevant assets, so that depends heavily on player investment of that part of the system. In the one session that we played I ran an action scene in which one of the Scene Distinctions was Uncertain Of What to do Next, and as the scene unfolded the player of the ranger declared actions that succeeded in eliminating that Distinction, meaning that he was then able to dictate to the table what the next step was. That was a nice alternative to (say) a BW Duel of Wits - the uncertainy being more about the situation than a disagreement between two characters - and I felt it emulated some of those parts of LotR where Aragorn in particular can see the range of options but is unsure what is the right choice of next action.
 

Reynard

Legend
One thing I have noticed listening to Fellowship is that the greatest danger from Tolkien's perspective is corruptibility. There are many examples in the recounting of the legends of the past of great heroes making terrible mistakes, and the wisest and most powerful of the good guys themselves fear their own corruption. In fact, the only reason Frodo is chosen as Ringbearer is that he (and hobbits in general, apparently) can resist the corrupting power of the Ring longer.

I'm not sure exactly how you translate that to a TTRPG, but it seems important.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
One thing I have noticed listening to Fellowship is that the greatest danger from Tolkien's perspective is corruptibility. There are many examples in the recounting of the legends of the past of great heroes making terrible mistakes, and the wisest and most powerful of the good guys themselves fear their own corruption. In fact, the only reason Frodo is chosen as Ringbearer is that he (and hobbits in general, apparently) can resist the corrupting power of the Ring longer.

I'm not sure exactly how you translate that to a TTRPG, but it seems important.
In 4e you would make the corruption a disease track LOL
 

aramis erak

Adventurer
I think you misunderstand: I am not asking how to do the thing, I am asking YOU how you have done the thing. It's just a discussion, not a request for advice.
Use The One Ring with the Rivendell expansion and the player's guide.

Specifically - the rules elements needed
  • the journey rules, while a bit mathy, support travelogue sequences with all party members mattering and being affected.
  • the combat system mostly ignores positioning, and strongly works with clustering
    • The stance system really does allow for a lot of game in the system, while also reflecting and abstracting the realities of a multitude of combat elements nicely.
    • It allows for a lot more narrative freedom than traditional minis-on-grid style combat systems.
  • The Song rules in Rivendell - Tolkien's characters sing. A lot. These rules give a great reward for characters doing so, even if the players can't carry a tune.
  • The social and tolerance rules give reasons for people to stop listening, but allow players to collectively contribute to a group negotiation.
  • The Treasure rules in Rivendell allow for the feel of the troll-hoard in The Hobbit.
  • The Shadow rules, which really should be introduced only after a few character years, are excellent for curbing the use of magic.
  • The various rewards are essentially low-level magics; the lots of little magics feel of Tolkien is well within the scope of the mechanics.
The key caveats:
  • The journey and combat rules require MUCH description to work right.
  • If players are not willing to buy into the "lots of really small magics" mindset, the ambiance is much harder.
  • If players are too risk averse, character growth stymies.
  • don't be too stingy with use of traits.
 

pemerton

Legend
One thing I have noticed listening to Fellowship is that the greatest danger from Tolkien's perspective is corruptibility. There are many examples in the recounting of the legends of the past of great heroes making terrible mistakes, and the wisest and most powerful of the good guys themselves fear their own corruption. In fact, the only reason Frodo is chosen as Ringbearer is that he (and hobbits in general, apparently) can resist the corrupting power of the Ring longer.

I'm not sure exactly how you translate that to a TTRPG, but it seems important.
In my Cortex+ Heroic take, this sort of thing is part of the Doom Pool. For instance, and inspired by dwarves in Burning Wheel (which has the most JRRT-ish Elves, Dwarves and Orcs of any RPG system I know), the dwarf PC has the following ability:

I must have it! When you take an action to acquire riches, or to gain something of beauty or craftsmanship, you may add a die from the Doom Pool. After your action, step up the die and return it to the Doom Pool.​

Similarly, when Gandalf uses Narya to do something other than aid recovery/healing, the Doom Pool is more likely to grow. (The Growing Dead limit, for those who know the system.)

How that plays out in terms of corruption is then about how I, as GM, use those extra Doom Pool dice to affect the characters.

In Burning Wheel, corruption is itself a character ability (called an Emotional Attribute) that generally can be used as a self-buff but tends to grow especially when used, and if it gets too high the character must leave play. (Eg an Elf overcome by Grief - one Elven version of "corruption" - either sails west or fades away; an Elf overcome by Spite - a different, more sinister Elven version of "corruption" - might throw him-/herself into a fiery pit, or commit suicide in some other fashion.) So there's not the degree of GM mediation that exists in my Cortex+ Heroic approach.
 

dave2008

Legend
More importantly, and closer on point with this topic, is the element of fear and despair in the form of Shadow. In D&D, its all about hit points and super-heroics. But Shadow represents the emotional toll of the characters as they succumb to the growing threat and corruption that the forces of Sauron (Evil) represent (i.e. the greed of the dwarves, the desire for power of men, etc.).
That is the part of the TOR and AiME that I don't like and doesn't feel like Tolkein to me. When I read the books I don't get the sense of the Shadow affecting everyone. It definitely comes into play for some, but it never felt pervasive to me in the books. That mechanic just rubs me the wrong way.

EDIT: Clearly this is just my opinion, and the mechanic is fine. It just doesn't feel like Tolkien to me. That being said, I've always preferred the Hobbit to tLotR.
 
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Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
That is the part of the TOR and AiME that I don't like and doesn't feel like Tolkein to me. When I read the books I don't get the sense of the Shadow affecting everyone. It definitely comes into play for some, but it never felt pervasive to me in the books. That mechanic just rubs me the wrong way.
I'll ask you to elaborate with more specific details, if you don't mind. My own experience is with The One Ring with only a cursory glance at AiME to see that similar mechanics exist, but I cannot speak for how well it translates to the D&D mechanics.

As far as the books, I found them very long-winded, meandering, and sometimes hard to follow. Even the reader for audible books has a very dry, monotone performance, though his lethargic-inducing drone seems somehow wonderfully appropriate. So I appreciate how the movies drew more details and emotion from the writing, and that has become my baseline for getting that Tolkien feel at the table. That could be the difference in our perspectives.

One of the aspects I really like is how the focus and strength is on the Fellowship the group creates with their characters. This bond enforces each character's Hope score, as well as certain traits or actions, which opposes and staves off the Shadow. Only when a character gains more Shadow points than their Hope score do they succumb to a bout of madness and begin their descent into corruption.

In the movies, which draw directly from the books, we can see such instances occur when Boromir attacks Frodo, when Legolas despairs before the Battle at Helms Deep, and when Frodo sends Samwise away. Each time, the Shadow weakens the strength of each Fellowship. But it is the courage, tenacity, and friendship that gets them through. That is very Tolkien to me. :)
 

Arilyn

Hero
That is the part of the TOR and AiME that I don't like and doesn't feel like Tolkein to me. When I read the books I don't get the sense of the Shadow affecting everyone. It definitely comes into play for some, but it never felt pervasive to me in the books. That mechanic just rubs me the wrong way.

EDIT: Clearly this is just my opinion, and the mechanic is fine. It just doesn't feel like Tolkien to me. That being said, I've always preferred the Hobbit to tLotR.
I love Tor, but agree with what you are saying. We actually altered the rules to make shadow points easier to get rid of, if they accumulated just from travelling through areas like Mirkwood. We ruled gaining more permanent corruption requires committing evil deeds or succumbing to powerful dark artifacts.

The books are about heroic characters, and there is despair and anxiety, of course, but no sense that anybody was actually becoming corrupt. Frodo is an exception because he was carrying the ring. Boromir stumbled, but ultimately won out morally through his sacrifice. There is no indication that anyone else was pick up shadow points by stumbling across dragon gold or travelling through corrupted lands.
 

Reynard

Legend
One thing I might add to D&D in order to help get a certain aspect of Tolkien feel in there is some sort of "emotional endurance" track similar to levels of exhaustion. In so many places in the book, the stress of being watched by the Enemy and of constantly fighting seems more dangerous than physical exhaustion or damage. Gandalf even carries a special healing potion for stress out of Rivendell.

As an aside: the Jackson films are absolutely wonderful, and Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite movie of all time, but a lot of small changes were made and elements cut that amount to them being an"okay" adaptation of the books, despite being "great" films if that makes sense. Some characters are very different -- Aragorn being chief among them -- and in a lot of places,a thoughtful approach from the books was replaced with action adventure in the films. All that is to say, as @Jacob Lewis hinted, trying to recreate the "feel" of Tolkien is a significantly different thing if you are aiming at the books versus the films.
 

dave2008

Legend
I'll ask you to elaborate with more specific details, if you don't mind. My own experience is with The One Ring with only a cursory glance at AiME to see that similar mechanics exist, but I cannot speak for how well it translates to the D&D mechanics.
To clarify, I have not played either TOR or AiME. I have only read them and read about them. The concept of the shadow mechanic just doesn't mesh with my middle-school boy impressions of the books. If I read them again, 30+ years later, maybe that would change.

As far as the books, I found them very long-winded, meandering, and sometimes hard to follow. Even the reader for audible books has a very dry, monotone performance, though his lethargic-inducing drone seems somehow wonderfully appropriate. So I appreciate how the movies drew more details and emotion from the writing, and that has become my baseline for getting that Tolkien feel at the table. That could be the difference in our perspectives.
I'm with you on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I really enjoy the Hobbit. I have reread that book as an adult and I enjoyed it even more. One of the few books that made me laugh-out-loud while reading it. Undoubtedly that skews my perspective; the Hobbit has little of the "darkness" of LOR.

Regarding the movies, I enjoyed them, but was also disappointed with some changes. The Fellowship was the best of the three IMO. In general I didn't like the Hobbit movies - to many changes for my taste.

One of the aspects I really like is how the focus and strength is on the Fellowship the group creates with their characters. This bond enforces each character's Hope score, as well as certain traits or actions, which opposes and staves off the Shadow. Only when a character gains more Shadow points than their Hope score do they succumb to a bout of madness and begin their descent into corruption.
It is just something I don't find essential to Middle Earth or something I really want to track.

In the movies, which draw directly from the books, we can see such instances occur when Boromir attacks Frodo, when Legolas despairs before the Battle at Helms Deep, and when Frodo sends Samwise away. Each time, the Shadow weakens the strength of each Fellowship. But it is the courage, tenacity, and friendship that gets them through. That is very Tolkien to me. :)
I guess when I think of the book and movies the major instances of despiar/ shadow infection involve the One Ring. That is essential to story of the Lord of the Rings, but not to playing a game in Middle Earth IMO.
 

dave2008

Legend
One thing I might add to D&D in order to help get a certain aspect of Tolkien feel in there is some sort of "emotional endurance" track similar to levels of exhaustion. In so many places in the book, the stress of being watched by the Enemy and of constantly fighting seems more dangerous than physical exhaustion or damage. Gandalf even carries a special healing potion for stress out of Rivendell.
I think that could work, but I really think that "feel" is only prevalent in the LOR trilogy. I would think that mechanic is not needed if a campaign is set more around the Hobbit. So what is the Tolkien feel: LOR or the Hobbit or the Silmarillion or the 4th age or something else?
 

Reynard

Legend
I think that could work, but I really think that "feel" is only prevalent in the LOR trilogy. I would think that mechanic is not needed if a campaign is set more around the Hobbit. So what is the Tolkien feel: LOR or the Hobbit or the Silmarillion or the 4th age or something else?
This is a good distinction to make. In my own head, I define it as the Lord of the Rings feel - hope vs despair, heroism in the face of ultimate failure, the bonds of friendship and the power of love, and sacrifice. Certainly going back to the first age, more classical mythical ideals pervade, and in The Hobbit you have a much more fairy tale adventure sensibility.
 

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