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Capturing the "feel" of Tolkien.


Small God of the Dozens
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'.

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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.


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:


Deluxe Unhuman
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.


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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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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