Tuesday, 16 December 2014

A Hob-bite Size View


I haven't watched either the second Hobbit film or the third - let me say that from the beginning. I find it hard putting into words how much I disliked the first of Peter Jackson's Hobbit films, and how much I cringe when I see anything to do with the other episodes, without coming across like an arsey killjoy, so I won't bother. Suffice to say the first film was stupid, loud, obnoxious, annoying, boring, and rang completely false against the source material, and nothing in the trailers or advertisements or reviews for the others suggested they would be worth watching to somebody who had that view of part one.

The best thing about the book of The Hobbit is the treatment of Bilbo. Tolkien doesn't often get credit for being an intelligent writer, but he was one: he thought carefully about what he was doing. He was writing a children's book and also a book that was very unusual for its time. He well understood that making the story all about Gandalf or Thorin or Smaug would be a mistake. There needed to be a human lens through which to view events in this strange world - somebody for children to empathise with. And that human lens came in the non-human form of Bilbo Baggins and his development from clown into hero. Indeed I don't think it's a mistake that the main character of the book is child-like in size. He's a small person in a grown-up world, and children can identify with that in a very deep and strong way.

Adults, though, who were children once too, also get that. I don't think reading The Hobbit would be quite as fulfilling for a 40 year old as it is for a 9 year old, but the effect is still there. If you've never experienced fantasy fiction before, the book functions as the perfect introduction because Bilbo's journey is a little bit like it: a person plucked from mundane reality and cast into something much stranger. 

RPGs work best, I think, when they adopt a similar approach. I don't think it's an accident that when you look at the most popular and iconic games - D&D, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, etc. - you notice that the expectation is that the PCs start off as close to children as possible: weak, small, lacking in power and knowledge.

The reason for this is largely mechanical or pragmatic - if players start off knowing everything and being all-powerful there doesn't seem much to do, and rewards for success are harder to come by. But the effect is that campaigns in those games have something of The Hobbit about them: D&D PCs, if they survive, very much tend to follow a Bilbo-like career trajectory. This, in turn, makes them easy to empathise with, and hooks the players into the game and setting just as the reader is hooked into Middle Earth. The child becomes an adult, the hobbit becomes a hero, the 1st level character becomes a 20th level one.

Game designers overlook this at their peril. Starting off powerful may seem AWESOME on the face of it, but it's not the right approach for lasting enjoyment and immersion.


  1. Hmmm... I think you forget that any film adapted from a literary work is just that-- an adaptation. PJ's Hobbit trilogy is just that: PJ's view of the Hobbit, of how it could be fun to see the story not from the point of view of Bilbo (as you have correctly pointed out) but from the same grandiose historical and geographical point of view as the Lord of the Rings. It's definitely not JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit any longer, but maybe we could call it Peter Jackson's The Hobbit :)

    1. I understand that argument but I don't like the result. Apart from anything else I just thought the first one was extremely poorly made. The script was appalling (how many dwarves have to see somebody in peril and scream "Nooooooooooooo!" before PJ remembers that he last saw somebody do that it was in Star Wars Episode III, and it was terrible?), the characters were all emotionally incontinent, and it was unnecessarily, ridiculously long and awfully paced. I quite liked what he did with the Necromancer, though.

    2. Couldn't agree more. The first film was terrible, and the bits I've seen of the second one were even worse. And, as you say, it's the script, more than anything else, that makes them so lame. The same flaws - poor scripts, a hyperactive devotion to "action" and an inability to create an immersive secondary world - were evident in the first trilogy too, but were less evident because the better-done stuff provided some relief.

      As an aside, it amuses (and OK, irks) me that for all their oft-stated devotion to Tolkien's works, the scriptwriters don't seemed to have grasped that orcs and goblins are *exactly* the same thing (Tolkien calls the following "goblins" at various points: Azog, Bolg, the Uruk-hai, Grishnakh, Ugluk (or whoever's head was put on a spike by the Rohirrim after Ugluk was killed), Bolg's huge bodyguard, etc., etc.).

  2. If I wasn't sure you'd punch me in the nose, I'd give you a big sloppy kiss for this entire post.

    All of it.

    Say on, brother.

  3. Completely ignoring the movie issue, let me first say that on the practical level I thoroughly agree: I like starting characters at "0 level" and making them work their way up from "surviving by wits alone" to "big damn heroes" who can punch cows to death in a single round or whatever.

    There are plenty of good stories and enjoyable play experiences that can be had starting strong and playing with a different set of goals other than simply getting stronger too, but... no matter whether you prefer column A, column B, or a little bit of each, that sort of begs the question of what "strong" and "weak" are. You could invent a game where the PCs start out as literally-helpless babies and work their way up from there, and far outdo the "child becomes an adult" rubric you praise. On the other hand, you could just as easily design a game where the PCs start out as epic heroes and spend their adventuring time struggling, not against kobolds and skeletons, but against mythic beasts and demigods.

    You've outlined a preferred playstyle - one that I also prefer - but I'm wondering what you use to calibrate it. Or will you cheerfully agree that any scale is fine as long as meaningful progression is part of it?

    1. Yes, to a degree any scale is fine as long as meaningful progression is part of it, but meaningful progression is much more difficult to either imagine or model as power increases. Once you're a God, what's there to progress to? Possibly something, but what, and how do you create meaningful power levels above it?

    2. Off the top of my head, I'd say use the cleric progression as a guide. (This is assuming some sort of D&D fantasy setting rather than, say, modern-day superheroes, which is already a kind of "play as gods" scenario.) The deity's power level is a function of the number and devotion of their followers, and determines the highest level of spell they can grant to their priests. You could use henchman rules or monster-summoning spells as a rough guide to the kind of supernatural servitors (in the Call of Cthulhu sense) available as well, or even have a major part of the in-game action be quests on some divine plane to subdue or win over the guardian deity of any beasts you want to have as servitors.

      A low-level god would have few followers and correspondingly few powers, and only be able to grant first-level (and later second-) spells, probably in a very localized area. Your quests would center around simply maintaining your followers' survival by smiting their enemies or investigating and averting supernatural threats. Probably at this level "smiting" would require a personal appearance, and be not too different from high-level D&D play.

      Mid-level play would switch over to meaningful expansion of power: defeating rival small gods, adding servitors and other means of influence to your portfolio, etc. Your followers would mostly be able to take care of themselves, but there would still be events that demanded your personal attention, including tensions and corruption within your church. You'd have regional influence through a variety of powers and the granting of mid-level spells. You could now smite most ordinary mortals with impunity, but still face death at the hands of powerful supernatural entities or other gods.

      High-level play depends on what you want for and end-game. It could be more of the same but on a global scale, or you could simply look into the complications of increasing omnipotence. Since you'd have vast influence and be granting the entire list of cleric spells, plus possibly special requests for divine favor or miracles, there are plenty of tricky issues for the PCs to sort out that don't demand mere application of power, such as schisms within your church over hard moral or ethical choices.

      The best part is that this doesn't need to be solo play: if you have a party, just peel off the "party" label and slap on one that says "pantheon." 8^)

  4. I'll play advocate. If the movies had no connection at all to the Hobbit, I'd have thought they were pretty good, except for the need to have pontificating wizards and elves making reference filled speeches. Scottish accented dwarves on pigback in massive battles? Who doesn't enjoy that? Despite having any number of silly parts, they still beat any movie made with the label D&D attached to it to date.

    1. I've only seen the first one but I really must protest at any description of it as good. Even on its own merits. I thought it was far too long, really badly paced (the scene with the trolls, for example, took ages and was excruciating), weirdly varying in tone (from po-faced and potentous conferences at Rivendell about necromancers, to playing the death of the goblin king for laughs), almost self-parodyingly melodramatic (how many times do you need to see a close-up on a supposedly gruff dwarf going "NOOOOOOOOOOO!"), and above all often simply snooze-inducingly dull (I had to get up and go to the toilet to stop myself drifting off during the Rivendell bit). It also couldn't make up its mind whether it was about Bilbo or Thorin, which I thought was the key weakness.