Sunday, March 27, 2022

Non-licensed not!Tolkien games

A small story

When I was 12, I was introduced to RPGs. I said "Oh I will make one for Lord of the Rings." I went home and wrote it in a notebook. 

It was terrible. 

For the last 20 years, I have been chasing this white whale. Here is what I have learned:

There is no one, perfect game. There is only the perfect game for the campaign you want to run (some assembly required). 

If you want to run a Tolkien game, there are a lot of resources to help you assemble the right game for you, both licensed and unlicensed. 

What's this post about?

Given this story and this blog I suspect no one is surprised that I have Opinions (TM) about Lord of the Rings games. 

Here is a blog post about licensed Tolkien games. 

What follows is a blog post about games that feel "Tolkienesque" but are not licensed

This is different from a Tolkien RPG fan project (of which there are many). These are games that have scratched off the serial numbers. They beg the ever-more-litigious Tolkien Enterprises to not sue them.

The unfortunately named "bobbit" from Ultima I, 1980

Here are some games that have a Tolkienique aesthetic to me:

  • There and Back Again by Ray Otus
  • Pipedream by Role Over Play Dead
  • Against the Darkmaster by Open Ended Games
  • Beyond the Wall by Flatland Games
  • The Hero’s Journey by James M. Spahn
  • Wayfarer’s Song by Christopher Johnstone
  • Out of the Ashes by Paul Mitchener
  • Midnight by Fantasy Flight
  • Back Again from a Broken Land by Cloven Pine Games
  • Under Hill, By Water by me

I've written a summary of each of these below.

There and Back Again by Ray Otus


There and Back Again is a free two page game by Ray Otus based on my own blogpost "1937 Hobbit as Setting". As might be expected from a game of this size, it's quite rules light: the preview images on the Itch page give you the whole game. Even so, it provides a solid structure for handling a range of characters and genre play through a simple resolution system and GM adjudication. Admirably, there are many translations of this game, with Polish, French, German, Spanish, and two Italian translations. 

What I like about this game: Well, first, having a game based on a my own post is enormously flattering. But beyond that, I love how design in the OSR space is often translatory. That is, one writer creates an idea, two authors iterate on it, a fourth author unifies the disparate iterations, etc. I find that fascinating. My post was a response to another blog post, and Ray Otus carries the torch even further than I did. Wonderful.

Pipedream by Role Over Play Dead


Pipedream is a hack of Cthulhu Dark about halfling detectives - members of the "Lodge of Wisefellows" - who experiment with magical pipeweed to solve mysteries around their idyllic-but-mysterious home of Irisfields. 

Translating the paradigm of "humans vs unknowable, undefeatable evils" to "halflings vs everything else" is super, super smart. For example, halflings automatically are defeated in any physical challenge by...well, everything. If your Wisefellow needs to challenge someone bigger, they need to rely on trickery, smart planning, or *magic*. 

The setting of Irisfields is really evocative. It has that right "Tolkienesque" feeling - meaningfully different from the source material but tonally reminiscent. The setting is packed full of interesting details - things like highland goblins, spring elves, siege goats, and murder oaks.

What I like about this game: There are two magic systems in Pipedream: words of power and elder weed. Using magic can raise your Dream score. The higher your Dream score, the more potent your magic tends to be. However, if it ever reaches 6, you lose yourself completely to the Dream and your character retires a burnout. This is a really clever, really elegant way to handle magic in a Tolkien-ish setting. 

Against the Darkmaster by Open Ended Games


Against the Darkmaster is a retroclone of MERP. As I said in my review of the licensed Tolkien games, I have a lot of nostalgic fondness for MERP (though the game itself gives me a headache). 

Like other modern retroclones, Against the Darkmaster brings modern layout, thoughtful cross-referencing, and pleasing visual design to a classic game. The game is obviously made by fans for fans, and I love that. You will note that the cover is a direct visual nod to MERP's first edition cover. 

If you want to utilize MERP's backlog of 100s of modules but avoid the headache-inducing pages of cramped text, Against the Darkmaster is a great choice that requires minimum rules fiddling on your part.

What I like about this game: First, the game comes with its own soundtrack and I love it when games have soundtracks. Second, I really like the way the game separates race ("kins") and culture. It is easy to differentiate your wood elves and deep elves because they both are "elves" but one uses the Woodland culture and one uses the Underground culture. This is a nice way to make a generic-but-evocative game that can model the genre tropes you want.

Beyond the Wall by Flatland Games


Beyond the Wall is an OSR game "inspired Ursula K. LeGuin, Susan Cooper, and Lloyd Alexander." Thus it is not really fair to say that this is just a Tolkien game with the serial numbers filed off. But there is a feeling of folklore and old world mythology embedded into this game that I can't help but feel is familiar of The Hobbit (if not the subsequent trilogy).

Beyond the Wall is my favorite OSR game and my go-to response whenever someone wants to branch out and try a new game. It combines the simplicity of the OSR ethos - rulings over rules, avoiding character "builds," open-ended challenge-based play - with a unified game design and modern resolution system. 

What I like about this game: Beyond the Wall is designed with adults in mind. It understands that players have kids, families, work responsibilities, and lives. The time you have to get together and play is short and sweet. It facilitates play by making character and scenario creation a minigame. As the players discover their characters through evocative playbooks ("Reformed Bully," "Witch's Prentice," "Would-Be Knight"), they are also generating relationships between each other ("The person on my right rescued me from the barrow wight when I uncovered the spellbook in the ancient tomb") and filling out their home village ("The blacksmith taught me everything he knew"). At the same time, the GM is filling out their scenario workbook to create the adventure that the players are going to run through that night. It's the perfect game for one shots and has several excellent (and inexpensive!) supplements about building out the game for campaign play. 

The Hero’s Journey by James M. Spahn


The Hero's Journey is an OSR game that utilizes the White Box rule set. The first edition is - by the author's admission - an attempt to create the "perfect" Tolkien game. The second edition advances this paradigm a little, wherein James M Spahn allows himself the freedom to wander farther afield from the source material.

Note: Several of the games in this list use Jon Hodgson art to good effect. He seems the go-to RPG illustrator if you want to invoke a Tolkienesque aesthetic.

What I like about this game: The book is full of little references for a Tolkien fan. Everything from the original publisher ("Barrel Rider Games") to spell names ("Breathed in Silver" - an illusion spell that references the C.S. Lewis quote that myths were "lies breathed through silver"). If you're a Tolkien enthusiast, these little gems contribute aesthetically to the overall tone of the text. 

Wayfarer’s Song by Christopher Johnstone


Wayfarer's Song is a free RPG heavily inspired by Norse mythology. Because The Lord of the Rings is also heavily inspired by Norse mythology, I've included it on this list. 

Like the WoD games or Burning Wheel, the game is split up between different character types - Men, Aelfan, Duegar, and Ettin - with the basic expectation that campaigns will focus on groups of one particular type.

As an indie game from the early 2000s, it definitely feels like a trad game of its time. But no matter your preferences for rules, there's so much creativity here that you will undeniably be inspired. Wayfarer's Song just oozes aesthetic. The linguistic choices are beautiful. You can be an elf from the Throne of Willows-Writhen. You can be a valraven warrioress. You can forge magical items with the bindrune of alarum. 

What I like about this game: In a lot of licensed games, you never get to have the stuff that the main characters from the inspiring media have. For instance, you won't get the Phial of Galadriel because that item is unique. But Wayfarer's Song gives you rules for creating light-filled phials. And that rules! 

Midnight by Fantasy Flight


Midnight is a game published under the 3.0 OGL. There were probably one million of these d20 games in the early 2000s and this one is my favorite.

The backstory of the game is this: The Dark Lord (Sauron Izrador) has tried to conquer the world several times and has always been thwarted...except this last time. The fellowship of heroes that rose against him was betrayed. The Shadow now stretches across the entire world: the Fourth Age has begun. 

A campaign setting with the premise of "Sauron wins actually lol" is great. Most d20 games feel shoehorned into the system, but somehow it works here. As a d20 game, it does have to bend over backwards to make the setting "low magic." It does this by moving using magic into a feat tree, with the Channeler base class getting the first magic feats for free, with real casting classes being locked into prestige classes taught by hidden forces that oppose the Dark Lord in secret enclaves. 

What I like about this game: The game includes "Heroic Paths" which grant additional feats. This additional power is meant to balance out the danger and the lack of magic (no clerics, healing potions, resurrection, etc.) in the setting. This lets you have incredible luck like Mat Cauthon or animal powers like Jon Snow in a way outside of your character class in a way that is very compelling.

Out of the Ashes by Paul Mitchener


Out of the Ashes is a game that ran a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2021 but has not yet been fulfilled. A playtest document was provided to backers, which is why I'm talking about it now.

The premise is similar-but-different to Midnight: the age has ended after a titanic war with the Dark Lord. The characters must come to terms with the old world passing away and rebuild their communities in a broken world. The game asks "What is Aragorn's post War of the Ring tax policy?" and means it in good faith. Very charming.

In the playtest document, the alternate name "After the Final War" is provided. I'm mildly disappointed that this wasn't the final game name since it feels less generic to me. Ah well. 

What I like about this game: Honestly any game that includes the option to play a not!elf who can do wire-fu and run across the tops of spears has me hook, line, and sinker. 

Back Again from a Broken Land by Cloven Pine Games


Back Again from a Broken Land is a PbtA game about characters returning home after the final war against evil - essentially playing out the Scouring of the Shire chapters. Like Out of the Ashes, it ran a successful Kickstarter campaign and is currently in pre-order for non-backers. I have ordered it but not read it, so I cannot speak more on this game except to say that I am excited to see it.

Under Hill, By Water by Me 


Under Hill, By Water is a game about halflings who don't want no adventures, thank you. It is obviously and earnestly an homage to the anachronistic little British nobility that live in a corner of Middle-earth, and an effort to create a cozy, slice of life game experience that you can pick up and play in off-weeks of your main game. Its supplement, Walking Holiday, is a long form essay on what makes travel in RPGs interesting and provides procedures for having interesting journey.

Conclusion

If you are trying to run a game that captures a Tolkienian aesthetic, I hope this post was somewhat helpful in finding the right game(s) for you. Please let me know how it goes! 

If there is another game that fits the bill that I have not included, please do leave a comment. I would love to read it.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for bringing all of these together!

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  2. I'd recommend Fellowship, a pbta game inspired by Lord of the Rings. Even if pbta is not your thing, I'd still recommend it in case you need some basis for archetypes and abilities.

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  3. Based on its presentation I would not have thought Pipedream was as thoughtful and interesting as you say. Thanks for assembling such thorough lists on this subject.

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  4. Quick suggestion: Check out "balrogs and bagginses" By Lars Dangly. Not licenced, but very much not with the names filed off. An OSR/BX set of rules for the Hobbit stlye games in middle earth. I found it on a forum, possibly rpg.net. Here is a copy of it refrenced at that forum:
    https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B8azW7IbtcxzalBIRUl0VW5zY1k/edit?pli=1

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  5. I love what you have to say about the translatory synergy of building on one another's work. This is one thing I really miss about the G+ days - there was a TON of that going on in real time, on the fly. Guess blogs have to take that place, huh?

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