This post was inspired by the recent announcement that there is a new Lord of The Rings TTRPG game using Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition rules. For more information on that, check out Free League’s press release.
Some Tolkien fans will boast about how many times they’ve read The Hobbit, the LOTR trilogy or The Silmarilion. Sometimes it becomes a contest of “who is the most read”. I’ll not boast, but I’ve read the Silmarilion twice, (I also started it twice only to put it down). As for the Hobbit and LOTR? Well, I’ll just say “I lost count”.
No writer has had a greater impact on my imagination than J.R.R. Tolkien. As a young reader I delved into fantasy-fiction books by Michael Moorcock, C.S. Lewis, Terry Brooks, Stephen R. Donaldson and stacks of books whose author’s names escape me. Like me, many of them were undoubtable influenced by Tolkien and his creations.
The first time I laid eyes on a copy of The Hobbit was between the summers of 1975 and 1976. I know only because it was in our house in Kansas where we lived but one year. I was nine years old at the time. It was my brothers book and I remember trying to make sense of the cover – a couple years would pass before I would read it. When I did read it, I was forever changed.
Middle-Earth as a Game
One would think that a fan of Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast would jump at the chance to explore Middle-Earth through Dungeons & Dragons or any other TTRPG. Years ago, I might have combined my imagination and the D&D ruleset to create my own shire, elven realms or wizards spire set in my version of Middle-Earth. Free League is doing that now. But Free League isn’t the first company to offer up Middle-Earth as a tabletop RPG destination. Since the 1980’s several companies preceded Free League in bringing Tolkien’s creation to the game table. The one that comes to mind is Middle-earth Role Playing by Iron Crown Enterprises using the Rolemaster RPG ruleset. (If you like roll-stat tables you’ll love Rolemaster).
Story vs Setting
Visiting the Shire, Mirkwood or Mt. Doom has never appealed to me. That might seem odd to many Tolkien face, but as much as I love the story of Bilbo, Frodo, Luthien…etc. I never wanted to carve out a piece of it for myself. It just doesn’t feel right to me. I guess the best way I can sum it up is – it would be like trying to play a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that has already been played.
Just for a moment think back to that epic rpg campaign in your past. It’s the one you reminince about. When stories of past adventures are traded, this is the one you share the most. Now think about trying to recreate it. You can’t. No matter how hard you try, it won’t be the same. Certainly it could end up being better the second time or, it could be worse. And if it’s worse, it may taint the memory of the first adventure?
I can see how Middle-Earth could be considered a setting ripe for gaming in the same way the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk are. I would argue to the contrary, and I think this points to the reason why I will never set foot in Middle-Earth. The Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Dark Sun… they are all settings created for adventure. They are worlds where stories are forged. Middle-Earth is the opposite – it’ where those stories were forged. To me, Middle-Earth is sacred ground. Gondor, Mirkwood and Isengard are where history were made.
Writing my own Story
I will always set Middle-Earth apart . Its characters and iconic locations will be kept sacred in my memory. Those stories are journeys J.R.R Tolkien took me on, together with Bilbo, Gandalf, Sam and Frodo. To Mount Doom, Golem’s Cave and the white spires of Gondor. I have no desire to imprint my own story on it.
How do you feel about playing in settings that came to you first in the form of a book? Its possible you might feel the same way about the Sword Coast if your first exposure to it was through the works of Ed Greenwood, R.A. Salvatore…its a long list of authors . I loved to here your thoughts, opinions and experience. If you liked this, please give it a share.
⚔ For Gondor! For Rohan! For the Shire! ⚔