Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Back of a Beermat Rules for Tolkienesque BECMI or BX Magic

If I were to run a game in Middle-Earth - Blue Wizards or otherwise - I would probably use Basic Holmes/Moldvay/Mentzer D&D, and most likely the Rules Cyclopedia. This is largely because I am old and lazy and set in my ways. I have MERP and played it a lot as a youngster, but it is complicated and would involve re-learning. I have The One Ring RPG and I am sure it is great, but I would have to learn it from scratch. I am convinced that the best system for Middle-Earth gaming would actually be a variant of Pendragon. But this would involve work to adapt the Pendragon rules. Realistically, then, the system with which I am most familiar is the one to go with, and that's Basic D&D.

The immediate problem with this is magic. As people who write about RPGs set in Middle-Earth never tire of emphasising, Tolkien's magic is nothing like D&D magic. It is rare and mysterious, where D&D magic is relatively common and systematic. It also has an air of danger about it for the caster - there is a strong sense that magic is intrinsically corrupting, and certainly not to be dabbled with.

But one wouldn't want to overcomplicate the blissful simplicity of Basic D&D with new systems. And at the same time one would, I think, want PCs to have access to magic of various kinds. I would simply introduce some restrictions:


  • PCs cannot be magic-users - although they can be clerics, druids or elves and use magic accordingly
  • There are magic-users, but becoming one involves becoming corrupted, and the PCs ought to be the Goodies in a Middle-Earth game
  • Whenever clerics, druids or elves use magic, there is a chance that this is noticed by servants of  Morgoth, increasing with the level of the spell cast  - and there would be a table for determining which such servants came to investigate (there was something along these lines in MERP)
  • There are magic items, but their use is always associated with some risk of becoming enthralled to Sauron, one of the Blue Wizards, the former owner, some malevolent entity, etc. (perhaps a 1% daily risk of becoming 'turned' and taken over by the DM as an NPC)


The last of these is hardest to systematise, but perhaps it is better that way - it would give the DM room to get creative.

22 comments:

  1. "Beermat" is not a term I'm familiar with...does this mean a coaster for one's pint?

    I have my own list of Tolkien conversion notes, jotted down on my own cocktail napkin scraps, that I had (originally) intended to type up as a full series of elaborate blog posts. That was...what, two years ago? (*sigh*) One of these days...

    Anyway, with regard to "wizards," I thought the easiest way to go was the B/X way of "race as class," i.e. players wishing to play a "wizard" would be a heretofore unnamed member of the Istari that were sent over to Middle Earth. Mysterious or not, I don't really see Gandalf (or Sauruman...or even Sauron really) as much different in scope of power from a low- to mid-level magic-user. However, despite his human appearance, he's not really human, right?

    The OD&D system probably works quite well with a Tolkien world...I certainly consider its level limits to be about accurate, and while I'd probably stick to the original three books, I'd definitely 'port in the half-elven rules to deal with an NPC like Elrond (who's clearly a long-lived cleric/fighter/magic-user). No thieves, though...would definitely leave those out. ; )

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    1. Just reskin thieves as burglars. Job done!

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    2. Is Elrond a magic-user though? He has one of the three Rings, that seems about it.

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  2. I think everybody is wrong about magic in Middle-earth (but me, obviously). It is neither as infrequent, rare, or mysterious as people make it out to be--nor is it as scientific, systemic, or flashy as Vancian/D&D magic. Magic was literally everywhere in The Hobbit; you couldn't go two pages without tripping over some spell or dude with magic powers (including the dwarves of Thorin's company).

    The real danger that Gandalf expresses isn't corruption, but--as you point out--a lack of secrecy. When you cast spells, spell-casters can notice. If you're trying to avoid notice, it's impossible while casting spells. And, based on some educated guesses, the observant sorcerer-sensitive will probably know its _you_.

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    1. The problem with that view is: if magic is so common how come it is so easy to notice whenever somebody uses it? If it was everywhere one would assume it would be hard to pick out a single instance of its use.

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    2. "If people are everywhere in Middle-earth, it would be hard to watch the empty lands." <- But of course, Sauron and his allies did. When Gandalf casts a spell on Caradhras, and he's the only person using words of power around, the magic sensitive person can say "AHA! THERE!"

      I also think there are different categories of spells.

      Actually, have you read Beyond the Wall? It's an OSR game, so it should be mostly compatible with your Basic/Rules Cyclopedia predilections. But spells are split up between cantrips/spells/rituals. Cantrips are _mostly_ what we see in Tolkien. Spells are Gandalf's larger displays of power. Rituals would encompass things like "making the phial of Galadriel" and "moon letters" and stuff.

      The spell list has a Tolkien/Le Guin vibe. Worth stealing for your project, maybe.

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  3. This is not thoughtful. The are no clerics or druids in Middle-earth, there are no temples and while there are hints of effective prayer there are no priestly intermediaries, prayer might work directly for any worthy character, but probably wouldn't. Healing is done with herbs in an elizabethan apothecary sense. If there are any 'druids' they are elves, and powerful elves at that.

    AD&D fits Middle-earth extremely well by capturing power in the abstract through level. Every contest in Tolkien's world is a power comparison, not a shrewd selection from an armoury of skills. Magic in Middle-earth is innate, and a class privilege, a privilege of peak beings, godlings and the first elves. The only way to introduce magic to PCs and plebs like us is solely through ancient devices of those peak beings, and these will be corrupting to ordinary folk.

    Power in ME derives from level and the mental stats and perhaps ancestry and fate. This is how Aragorn was able to commune with Sauron through the Palantir without being turned, lets view this:

    A--lvl 14 -- int 15 -- wis 17 -- cha 18
    S--lvl 21 -- int 22 -- wis 17 -- cha 20

    Maybe the eastern wizards have devices through which they can influence acolytes, and so can service low level clerics, but that is not Tolkien.

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    1. I accept all your comments but what I wanted to emphasise is that I want to do it with minimal changes. You're right about religion in middle earth but I don't see there being a problem in saying clerics are blessed by Eru or something like that.

      Alternatively, as somebody suggested below, humans can be fighters or thieves, and elves are fighter/clerics rather than fighter/magic users.

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  4. Classic D&D (B/X-BECMI-RC)works for Middle-earth pretty well if, as you said, you 'reskin' all magic-users as 'Istari' (Wizards). Thieves would work as well (Gandalf, in the Hobbit, talks of burglars and 'expert treasure hunters' despite the fact that Bilbo is definitely not one).

    I would argue one should dump the cleric class and treat elves as fighter/clerics instead of fighter/magic-users (using the cleric spell progression up to 10th level). Turning undead (Glorfindel at the Fords of Rivendell), healing (Elrond), and Legolas' being unaffected by the snow on Caradharas (sp?) seems like clericy stuff.

    Personally, I'd probably also only run it to 5th level as well...

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    1. That is a good suggestion re: elves. I will incorporate that

      I was also thinking about capping levels. You'd also probably have to do away with XP for treasure as the main driver of advancement.

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    2. Hmm...I wonder about that. Middle Earth might be a fairly good medium for dusting off (or at least giving a second pass to) the 2E system of experience and advancement. Might work well with a couple tweaks.

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    3. It also depends if you're running it as "Lord of the Rings" or "The Hobbit". I'd argue that The Hobbit lends itself better to a Classic D&D campaign. It is more story-booky, with less Backstory & Bloat.

      In the Hobbit, taken at face value, you get: Wizards, Burglars, Warriors (including possible level-titles such as "Great Warrior and Hero"), dwarves, elves, and halflings. Magic weapons, magic rings, special (magic?) armor, secret doors, treasure, dragons, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, giant spiders, werebears, trolls (ogres?), giant eagles, and of course, dragons. You have dungeon exploration, wilderness exploration, morale checks, and reaction rolls.

      There is even a 'Necromancer' and a 'Wizard'. I'd even say, if you are running a Hobbit-inspired campaign it is not even necessary to worry about the whole 'Istari' angle. Gandalf in the Hobbit is just a wizard, and the necromancer can be just a wizard too (albeit Chaotic..)

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    4. Yeah, that's a great observation. Somebody did a blog post on this point - I forget where.

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    5. Total agreement with Anonymous on elves as fighter/clerics (or just clerics with swords). They are clearly the premier healers (maybe second only to the rightful king of Gondor).

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  5. For somebody who describes himself as "old and lazy and set in his ways," it appears you are making a lot of work for yourself (assuming that you intend to run D&D Middle Earth and not just think about it, as most of us are doing)!

    These comments assume you may be willing to do something that isn't D&D--which may be useless to you.

    I suggest that you don't need complicated rules to play this out. You can just set stats on, say, percentile ranks, for each of the things you think Middle Earth entities should be ranked: fighting, magic, whatever. In a conflict, the higher one wins, but players don't find out who is higher until the narrative responses of the Referee makes it clear who is likely to win. Unopposed tests roll percentile. Advancement as in Basic Roleplaying.

    Then you don't have to think about clerics (who, I have to agree with others, don't fit Middle Earth--except maybe for Elf magic), Vance-style spells, or anything else. Just make some basic rules for the setting you want instead of shoehorning your Middle Earth into their D&D. It could work! Otherwise, it's D&D painted in Tolkien--which is funny, given the early evolution of D&D.

    You could also do this with T&T, AFF, or any number of another early, simple systems, and you'd have less wrestling to do. Now, if the fun of it is the adaptation of D&D, then I've missed the point entirely.

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    1. That sounds more complicated to me than a system I know like the back of my hand, to be honest. It's highly intuitive for me to come up with D&D rules, treasures, mechanics and monsters on the fly because I've done it a lot! Not so for a new system, however purportedly simple.

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  6. An interesting set of posts. I don't consider myself an expert in things fantasy or RPG, but it seems that one problem with trying to unpack Tolkien's magic use is because, like most things Tolkien, there is a many-layered approach to the subject. So at one point, magic seems to be something different races can do that others can't. The Hobbits ask if things made by Galadriel are magical. The elves ponder what that could mean. Galadriel even says it's a strange term since it's used for both elves and the Enemy. Likewise, Hobbits can move about silently and with stealth in a way us big people would consider magical. Then there is clear reference to magic and spells. Gandalf uses it to fight opponents like wolves, or the dwarves use it to hide the Troll treasure; Grond has spells of ruin. Then you have an almost natural magic, as we see with the chapter on Treebeard, that hearkens to a more sacramental outlook than magical one. So it never seems to be just 'this is magic, that isn't.' Even among the wizards.

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    1. Yes, it's a good point, which is why if one were doing it 'properly' one really wouldn't use D&D. This is actually why I think Pendragon is best. Apart from being more suitable thematically, it treats magic as being mostly outside the rules, so to speak. There is magic, but the DM has free reign to make it whatever he wishes in a given moment.

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  7. This article may help You about the backround of Middle-earth's "magic" (sub-creation is a better word for that, because it's more like an art or mastery than a mechanism):
    http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Magic

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  8. Another thought on "magic:" a lot of it appears to be speaking the right language and charisma. Sauroman talking a mountain into rage and Gandalf trying to calm it, convincing a river to rise from its banks and smack down the Nazgul, and doesn't Strider do something with a horse at one point by speaking Elvish to it? Except that msot of this stuff is done by wizards and elves, I'd wonder if a "Nature Whisperer" class should be a thing?

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  9. BX Tolkien:
    Fighters, Dwarves & Halflings are unaltered.
    Elves use the Cleric spell list.
    No Clerics.

    The Magic-User spell list seems completely 'off' for Middle Earth & best left out AFAICS. You can use Fire Magic like Burning Hands if you possess the Elven Ring of Fire, ie you are Gandalf. :D

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