Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Replicating the Lord of the Rings (The Replication of the Ring?)

Yesterday, walking across frosty fields in the early morning with sheep dashing about in gleeful panic, I was reminded that my favourite bit of The Lord of the Rings is its first section - really the first few chapters, but extending until Rivendell.

Tolkien's genius, which I am sure was partly accidental but partly by design, comes from something which is rarely remarked upon. In the Shire, he created an island which is not an island. It's possible for his characters to go from bucolic pastoralism to mighty wilderness by just walking for a bit. (And possible for the mighty wilderness to invade the bucolic pastoral with a horse ride or two.) This allows him to produce a realistic "Hero's Journey" motif not just once, but twice (five times, actually, if you count Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin). The young hobbit finds his way in a vast and dangerous world, and comes back a grown man, and more.

It is hard to imagine a better way of appealing to a British, particularly an English, audience than this - it hits on so many themes that scratch our national itch it is unreal. There's the "sensible, down-to-earth and freedom-loving humble Englishmen go and show sinister and dictatorial Johnny Foreigner what for". (This was our favourite type of story even BEFORE the Nazis.) And there's "uncouth but honest Englishman goes out into the big bad world and proves his mettle in spite of the snootiness of Johnny Foreigner". These are two motifs writ large across our national psyche.

But in setting the Shire in the middle of a continent, Tolkien manages to avoid making it all seem a bit too "on the nose" with the English romanticism and taps into something much more universal: the love of home and the familiar, which all human beings feel, combined with the need to leave it and an existential threat which may well destroy it. This is dynamite, and he lights the fuse with aplomb.

This is hard to replicate in a game. Beginner PCs do not love the world the DM creates (yet, anyway), and travelling across a continent is not the type of scenario which makes D&D sing. There is something of it in the descent into the underworld which beginner PCs undertake. But because they do not inhabit a social milieu, their heroes' journeys are not rooted in a sense of home, and because they die easily, it's easy to treat them as throwaway at first. D&D lends itself to arch detachment rather than emotional investment. This is not a bad thing. But it does provide yet another reason (there are many) for suggesting The Lord of the Rings is not really a true "Appendix N' book - if what we mean by that is a book that really influences D&D in play.

18 comments:

  1. There are a few times in the trilogy that I think brings back the humor and warmth of the first few chapters--glimpses into the Shire, by way of our travelling hobbits. Coneys in Ithilien, Pippin being made a guard of the Tower, Merry and Pippin serving as Treebeard's door wardens in Orthanc...

    But I take your point. I find that the game Beyond the Wall does a good job of making your PCs love their village even before "seeing" it with the character creation mini-game. They forge connections with each other, with the blacksmith, with the wise woman, all during character creation. It's brilliant.

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    1. I came here to mention Beyond the Wall as well.

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    2. I will have to play that sooner or later!

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  2. Yes, The Lord of the Rings doesn't really fit in - not least because it's not the sort of "portal fantasy" in which modern Brits or Americans find themselves in a fantastical milieu. There is a strong *echo* of that kind of thing, in the points you identify above and in the comfortable anachronisms that the Hobbits enjoy: pocketwatches and teapots and the like. But something like Three Hearts and Three Lions is clearly a much stronger influence on D&D: "You find yourself a paladin in a strange world of elves, kobolds and (regenerating) trolls".

    It's a point Jon Peterson makes in Playing at the World: the "portal fantasy" paved the way for D&D by depicting scenarios in which ordinary people became heroes in fantastical worlds. It would be interesting to know if characters in the early Arneson/Gygax campaigns were ever in the John Carter/Holger Carlsen/Peter, Susan, Edmund, Lucy mould; I seem to recall reading that some of the first PCs just used their players' names.

    For my money, Empire of the Petal Throne does the best job of blending the portal-fantasy "shock of the new" with secondary-world immersion. The "straight off the boat" default start to a campaign is the best of both worlds, giving the players both a sense of Tolkienesque depth and a bit of blinking, wide-eyed wonder.

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    1. Yes, I like the "straight off the boat" motif a lot. That would be a good way of doing adventures on Tschai, actually.

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  3. This seems like it could be a good session 0,before the characters are rolled, having the players help design the base town (with a framework). I would not want to be his throughout the campaign but if for the hometown you have the players fill in some of the town map, deciding power players, local color, places to enjoy and relax, as well as maybe the major industry or crops. Maybe more important than having them care about these things, it should help them remember at least

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    1. Yes, I did something like that once for a cyberpunk campaign and it worked great.

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  4. A few RuneQuest scenerio packs have the characters start off with really low key stuff. Tribal initiations, first hunt, that sort of thing. The idea is to tie them into the society. I'm not sure if you could replicate that sort of thing for a Shire type setting, or for D&D for that matter, but I thought I'd mention it as a possible line of thought.

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    1. 5E and DCC have a design element to allow that to happen -- 0-level characters. In DCC is is straight up there, but in 5E it is implied. With 5E, just build a character like normal, but only with race and background and give them 6 hit points plus Con bonus. Boom, 0-level character! Also, set them up as apprentices and such with NPCs. I am sure this can be done with other games, too.

      Then, give them local, non-lethal but still dangerous adventures in their town, helping their family, neighbors, and townsfolk... their people. You see this kind of thing in early Harry Potter books, in the Magician series, and other series, where you learn about the characters and their world as they learn about themselves.

      After the players and characters have gotten to know and care for their family, friends, and neighbors, they "graduate" to 1st level characters just as everything in their relatively bucolic world is threatened by something unknown from outside. Maybe they have to challenge it head on, maybe they have to go into a dungeon to find out more information, maybe they have to go to the capital city... but they have to go elsewhere, to find not only their fortune and fate, but also to protect that which they have come to love...

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    2. That's exactly it. The opposite of the DCC funnel. GIve them a map of the shire and have them defend it against wolves, and some other low skill problems, some games at the fair. Then 1st level when the place gets threatened.

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    3. Pendragon sort of does this, now that you mention it.

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  5. I think the LoftR is the only one with a full adventuring party (kinda) - the fellowship of the ring - whereas Leiber, Vance, etc. have lone protagonists? Hence appendix N status?

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    1. Interesting. That's a good point actually.

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  6. In my experience, there's two ways to do this: pre-play and in-play. In-play is harder and takes longer, but works better in the long run.

    Pre-play is the currently fashionable version, where before the campaign begins you all sit down together and design your home village, your friends and family, maybe play out some key coming-of-age scenes, and so on, so that when play proper begins the players feel their PCs are grounded in something. But for this to work you need genuine player buy-in. Not just buy-in in theory - 'sure, I guess it would be nice to know where my PC comes from' - but buy-in in *practise*, a willingness to incorporate all that into the actual business of play rather than just wandering off in search of adventure and never mentioning it again.

    In-play is where you start the PCs off as traditional blank slates, throw them into some low-level adventure zone, and let them bounce around it long enough for them to actually start to care about it. It becomes their home because it's full of places they've been and people they've met and things they've done, just like real life. Then when you subsequently remove them from it, or threaten it, it actually *means* something. When they leave, they've got something to care about coming back to.

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    1. One thing I have never done, but which I have always wanted to do, would be to to the in-play version, do a campaign, and then finish it off and start another campaign based in the same town. Rinse and repeat. I suppose this is the basis of Greyhawk.

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  7. I think I pulled this off once in a one-on-one game. The player wanted to reboot a character he had run when we were kids, but on my current world, so we both knew the character but he new nothing about the world. I used this device:

    1. I ran a one shot in which player ran a middle aged, mid-level pregen character fighting to save the life of his pregnant daughter (a low-level ranger).

    2. The next session we started the game proper, with a PC as a 1st level teenager living with him mother, stepfather and little sister. It became apparent to him from the descriptions that that his mother was the pregnant daughter from the one-shot, suffering long-term injuries she received during the course of the one-shot. He realised he had been playing his PC's grandfather. Having worked so hard in the first session to keep his "daughter" alive, he was invested in his mother's story.

    3. Next session I developed his sister and his friend group. I made his sister very likeable and picked archetypes for his friends that I knew he would immediately relate to.

    (I find most of my players respond positively to a quiet, pretty archer with a hidden past that obviously pains them. Think Katniss Everdeen. I hav eused this more than once and I swear there have been at least two crushes.)

    4. At the beginning the campaign felt like growing up in Hommlet and deciding to explore the moathouse with your friends. Until the fourth session when he stumbles on this note in the house of a murdered man:

    "There is another matter of interest, a local boy by the name of Koln. I would consider it a coincidence but for a clear family resemblance. I am not certain what use our master might make of this intelligence, but it seems worth noting in case it becomes important in the future. So far I see no connection between the Koln boy and the Claw, but if they recognize the connection they may attempt to turn it to some mischief"

    5. Events revolve around his family but he doesn't know why. By session 16 he has to go to the big city to protect his family, while travelling with his family, including his mother who he knows is concealing things from him. During that journey he gets in an argument with his mother (the player was actually yelling) and finally finds out his biological father is an aristocrat from a far-off land. Who had been engaged to his mother, who was from a rich mercantile family. And inexplicably called off the wedding, which led to mom losing her position, so that the PC had lost not one but two birthrights.

    Now I'm not going to make him do anything, but I am **positive** that after he completes his current task, rather than going back to his village he going to travel the world and reclaim what he lost.

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    1. I would like to read more blog posts about the theory and practice of one-on-one games. It is almost a genre in its own right but I don't remember encountering much about it.

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  8. I suppose you could get a Shire like vibe if you made the players starting home absolutely idyllic and untouchable: never threatened by the dangers of the campaign, all the NPCs "helpful" or (at least) "not hidden enemies," and basically a clear and present Safe Place for the PCs to rest and recuperate between adventure excursions. Later on (at mid- levels, circa 6th-8th) you could throw the big threats at the place and the PCs will (hopefully) care about their home being menaced...and by successfully defending their home they can acquire the XP they need to get to Name level and establish themselves as lords and protectors of the(ir) realm.

    I don't think that's a terrible way to run a campaign. On the other hand, I think it's REALLY tough to get players to really give a shit about a place based purely on pre-game-created "backstory." In my experience, caring about imaginary stuff (characters, places, NPCs) only arises organically during play. That's the only thing that forges real emotional attachment.

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