Sunday, September 17, 2017

1937 Hobbit as a Setting

I only recently read this post, which speculates about what the Middle-earth intellectual property would look like if The Hobbit existed in isolation. It is a good post and the context for today's treatise, so go read it real quick. I'll wait here.

Ready? OK.

If The Hobbit (1937 edition) existed in isolation, what would we know about that setting? How would the setting work for an RPG?

The Hobbit is usually thought of as a more juvenile text. The Hobbit is more of a fairy story, in contrast to the trilogy's modern fantasy worldbuilding. If you see Norse influences in The Hobbit, they are the half-forgotten memories brought by vikings to England and reimagined by the people there. In fact, a word search in my pdf of the text reveals that the term "Middle-earth" doesn't even exist in this book. As such, I refer to the setting as "Wilderland," using the name on the map provided to us.

Here are some observations...

What is the Game About?

A game based on a literary setting would do well to emulate and support a type of play emblematic of the central themes of the text. This is done by 1) a shared understanding between the GM and the players and 2) mechanics that reinforce the central themes. So this raises the question: what is The Hobbit about? 

I offer that the central themes of The Hobbit are:
1. Treasure hunting
2. Journeys
3. Singing

Treasure Hunting

"And I assure you there is a mark on this door-the usual one in the trade, or used to be. Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward, that's how it is usually read. You can say Expert Treasure-hunter instead of Burglar if you like. Some of them do."
Smaug from the Romanian edition
The plot of the The Hobbit is recognizable: an unwilling hero, a wise mentor, a descent into danger, a transformation, and a return home. One of the central conceits, however, is that Bilbo is a burglar i.e., an expert treasure-hunter. The text supposes that there is an adventuring class. It tells us that these people advertise their status via runic markings on their door. Burglars can be contracted to go on adventurers for/with you. 

I assume a game based in Wilderland will have the players will all be professional burglars. Instead of meeting in an inn, clients will knock on their door (ala Sherlock Holmes) and offer them a contract similar to the one Thorin offers Bilbo: "Terms: cash on delivery, up to and not exceeding one fourteenth of total profits (if any); all traveling expenses guaranteed in any event; funeral expenses to be defrayed by us or our representatives, if occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for."


Roads go ever ever on / Under cloud and under star, / Yet feet that wandering have gone / Turn at last to home afar. 
Bilbo and Gandalf from the Portugese edition
The Hobbit is essentially about a journey, as one can gather from the subtitle There and Back Again. A hexcrawl seems a likely play style for this sort of setting--but not a meandering, wandering colonial sandbox. I picture a "get from point A to point B" style hexcrawl, where a map is handed to the PCs and they are allowed to choose the best path, as the default play style. One map is provided by Tolkien in the book. Without the trilogy to pin you down, you can imagine how many more maps could be made by those wishing to explore other corners of Wilderland. (The One Ring RPG has done a great job of creating both player- and GM-facing maps which are used just for this purpose.)

New Rule: Journey-Based Experience
  • You earn 1XP for each hex traveled. 
  • You earn 2XP for discovering a new adventuring site (ruin, monster lair, natural wonder, etc.). 
  • You "cash in" your earned XP at a safe haven (the Shire, Elrond's house, Beorn's house, Laketown, etc.).If you have enough XP to level up, do so at the safe haven, then discard all extra earned XP.  
  • You level up when you reach 20 x [Current Level] XP.  
(NB: Jeff's Gameblog has an alternate system for this.)


Now they rode away amid songs of farewell and good speed, with their hearts ready for more adventure, and with a knowledge of the road they must follow over the Misty Mountains to the land beyond.
Dwarves from the Swedish edition
There are more songs than battles in The Hobbit by about a thousand to one. Songs in the text do a lot of work. They are 1) mnemonic devices for remembering lore 2) truisms and appeals to authority 3) taunts 4) inspirational battle chants 5) humorous 6) comforting. 

Although it obviously wouldn't be everybody's cup of tea, songs are so important to The Hobbit that I would make them a central mechanic. Imagine the stunt system from Exalted or the haiku duel system of Warrior-Poet.

New Rule: Sing for Success
Whenever a PC speaks or sings at least one verse from a song in compliment to his action, they gain an extra +1d6 bonus to their d20 roll.
You get a single bonus dice if the song is not original (just a Tolkien or folk song).
You get two bonus dice if the song is original, maintains a Tolkien-esque aesthetic, and seems pretty applicable to the task at hand.

What is the Setting Like?

I would describe the lay of the land as both fantastic and ancient.
Bilbo and friends from the Russian edition
Despite people always going on about how "low magic" Middle-earth is, The Hobbit has magic pouring out of it. Without the added histories of the trilogy, The Silmarillion, and other supplementary materials, Gandalf becomes "just a wizard." Magic rings are given away for winning riddling contests. Trolls have wallets that can cry out when picked and holes full of magic swords. Eagles, spiders, and wolves can all speak. I would describe Wilderland as "fantastical." 

New Rule: Animal Tongues
Animals speak their own languages. Foxes speak foxish, eagles speak eaglese, thrushes speak thrushican, etc. Animals with high Intelligence scores can learn additional languages, including the Common Tongue. Player characters with high Intelligence scores can learn additional languages, including animal tongues.

The setting also maintains the trilogy's feeling of "fading grandeur." The dwarves no longer had access to the astronomical sciences needed to reckon when Durin's Day would come about. The Kingdom of Dale had been scourged away by the dragon, and its bloodline had run thin. Elrond talks about how the realm of the High Elves, Gondolin, had been destroyed by goblins. And yet, all of these ancient roots have branches that reach into the current age. 

Gollum from the Romanian edition
New Rule: Identification
You can tell when an item is magical because it has runes on it. Until identified, all found magical items exist in a quantum unknown state. If a player character tries to use the magic item, the quantum state collapses. The GM rolls on his favorite magic item chart and determines what the item is. As the player experiments with it, the GM informs them what happens. Does it catch on fire? Does it return when thrown? This is worked out as normal.
If the player keeps the magic item until it can be identified through a) research at a safe haven or b) identification by a loremaster NPC, the player has authority to state what kind of magic item was found. The GM should provide players a list of acceptable magic items that exist in their setting (perhaps any +1 equivalent?) and let the players choose which one they found.

What are the Characters Like? 

Battle of Five Armies from the French edition
People who read Bilbo's story have a peculiar view of "who's who" in Wilderland. Goblins capture and imprison Thorin's party--but so do the wood elves. Wolves trap them and eagles rescue them, but we are told that eagles are not "kindly birds." We are told that neither elves, nor goblins, nor Beorn had any love lost with dwarves. We see why when Thorin retakes the Kingdom Under the Mountain: dwarves can also be jerks.

Lacking a Dark Lord to unite the forces of darkness, and thus unite the forces of light to oppose him, we are given a picture of disparate races each preoccupied with their own interests and problems.

Bloodlines seem to be important to the folk of Wilderland. Bard can speak to thrushes because he is of the true blood of Dale. Bilbo is perhaps a little brave because he has Tookish genes. Gandalf refers to Radagast the wizard as his "cousin," so maybe magic travels through bloodlines, too.

Because of this, I think that random advancement OSR classes that Zak S and Jeff make would be fun for this sort of game. When you get a weird roll and suddenly talk to badgers, you can say "Ah, of course. The bloodline of the ancient Brockhouse runs through my veins. They were known to keep badgers as pets."

Player characters may be:

No one had dared to give battle to him for many an age; nor would they have dared now, if it had not been for the grim-voiced man (Bard was his name), who ran to and fro cheering on the archers and urging the Master to order them to fight to the last arrow.

Wilderland seems to support a few different tribes of humans. The ancient kingdom of Dale has been reduced to the men of the Long Lake. Beorn comes from somewhere time out of mind. The map mentions Woodmen. The elves trade with the people of Dorwinion. I assume there are other kingdoms of men. I'd model them after the folk of Ham in Farmer Giles of Ham or the men of Erl in The King of Elfland's Daughter.

Humans level using catch-all random advancement. Unless they're wizards. Those guys level up as witches. 

There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it).

Hobbits level as halflings. Except they are called hobbits. Don't tell the Tolkien Estate.

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells, / While hammers fell like ringing bells / In places deep, where dark things sleep, / In hollow halls beneath the fells

Dwarves level as dwarves. It's possible nobody likes them.

Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and badhearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, though they are usually untidy and dirty. Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far. They did not hate dwarves especially, no more than they hated everybody and everything, and particularly the orderly and prosperous; in some parts wicked dwarves had even made alliances with them.

Goblins level as half-orcs. They seem to be generally "bad news."

An Observation
The text makes mention of "guns" in a few oblique ways. They credit goblins with making machines and explosions. Gandalf chastens Bilbo for opening his door like a "pop gun." Gandalf's spell makes a smell like gunpowder. You know what? Put blunderbusses in the Wilderland setting. Go for it. Play a gun-toting hobbit.

In the Wide World the Wood-elves lingered in the twilight of our Sun and Moon, but loved best the stars; and they wandered in the great forests that grew tall in lands that are now lost. They dwelt most often by the edges of the woods, from which they could escape at times to hunt, or to ride and run over the open lands by moonlight or starlight; and after the coming of Men they took ever more and more to the gloaming and the dusk. 

The text differentiates high elves and wood elves. It's said that wood elves are more dangerous and less wise.
High Elves level as elves. There are three tribes of high elves: deep elves, sea elves, or light elves.
Wood Elves level as rangers. They are distrustful of strangers but are not a wicked folk.

The master of the house was an elf-friend— one of those people whose fathers came into the strange stories before the beginning of History, the wars of the evil goblins and the elves and the first men in the North. In those days of our tale there were still some people who had both elves and heroes of the North for ancestors, and Elrond the master of the house was their chief.

Elf-friends level as half-elves.

Great Animals
Whether wolf or spider or eagle, it seems that animals are as active in the world as anything that goes on two legs. If somebody really wanted to play an animal, I'd hack something together using Arnold K's Very Good Dog.

New Rule: Critical Names
When you score a critical success (either a 20 or a 1, depending whether you roll low or high), you may sacrifice 10XP to declare a new byname or name one of your objects.
For example, if you pick up a club and manage to hold off a goblin's attack with a critical success, you can give yourself the byname "Oakenshield." If you take out your magic dagger and stab a spider right in his stupid spider face with a critical success, you can call your dagger "Sting."
When your name (or your item's name) comes up and is relevant to the task at hand, you can add +1 to your roll. For example, if your weapon's name is the goblin cleaver, you get a +1 to attack goblins.


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  4. This is like one of the great blog posts from the elder days of the OSR. We do not see its like in the world today.

  5. This is incredible stuff! The only change I'd make is that elves would level as clerics and cast cleric spells, as they are said to be wise in the ways of herbs and healing (or is that in later books only?)

  6. I had the gold foil boxed set of The Hobbit and the LOTR Trilogy together, so I read them all as one back in 70s... right about the same time I got my white box in the mail from TSR.

    This analysis of The Hobbit as a setting is amazing, and because of the way I read them, doubly so to me!

    Thanks for posting!

  7. That’s a great read! Thank you!

  8. I'm late to the party...but I REALLY loved this!

  9. Love it, but I just read the book and it seemed primarily about two things: (1) Singing which you've covered and (2) Being captured and escaping (See Trolls, Goblins, Spiders, Wood Elves). You need some being captured/escaping mechanics.

  10. Roll a reaction check when a pc/party is defeated or zero HP. On hostile reactions, the poor fellows are doomed. Neutral reactions they are taken hostage & treated badly/better depending on how the roll went. Positive reactions mean they leave the PC's there (left for dead, startled away by something else, decide toleave you with just a few taunts etc).

    +2 or -2 to rolls by goodly or wicked creatures respectively.

    Clever players of course can influence things by giving good reasons they should be taken alive...

    As for escaping- maybe best done through play. I'd roll some sort of wits check for the captors as to how thorough or how forgetful/mistake ridden their capturing is.

  11. I love this text and the thoughts you offer! I've been revisiting this page again and again and still feel excited when reading it... Thank you!!!