Sunday, July 30, 2023

Monster Menu Playtest: Dungeon Meshi meets HeroQuest

While between tasks for launching His Majesty the Worm, I found myself with something I haven't had in the last few years: free time. I found being idle uncomfortable, so I made an ashcan of a game that was on my mind: What if HeroQuest could accommodate the storyline of Dungeon Meshi?

I played in a Dungeon Meshi space briefly before, as you might recall

I called this project Monster Menu. I put it onto paper just to get it out of my head. I used a lot of art resources that I had either already purchased or were free to use. I wrote in layout, which is something I've never done before. 

This ashcan version is available to check out. I'd love for you to play it with your friends. If you do, I'd love for you to tell me how it went!

There's a lot of gaps, but I hope you can figure them out. If there's something you don't understand or if something seems weird, just change it. HeroQuest is a game for young folks, and we have grown up. Ride this game hard and put it away wet.

Check out the playtest materials by clicking here or on the picture below.

Click here to check out the playtest materials

Saturday, July 8, 2023

On the Origin of Ents

Despite the inappropriateness of the format, I've made several long threads about Tolkien on Twitter.

As Twitter crashes and burns, I wanted to pull this one out. It's pretty good scholarship, I think.


This is my favorite picture of Ents. It is by Darrel Sweet.


I want to talk about both the origin of Ents, both within the mythos and also in Tolkien's writing process.

Caveat: Some ascribe a near mythical status to Tolkien, imagining that he had a perfect understanding of the entire corpus of written literature, and that his books were divinely inspired, unerring, and delivered on golden tablets. In truth, he was an ambitious writer who was constantly rewriting. I believe Tolkien would still be tinkering if he could.

One of the reasons that "Where did Ents come from" is a perennial question is because of Tolkien's editorial gaps. If the Silmarillion goes into all this detail about who gets to be Ilúvatar's special boy, what about Ents? If Treebeard is called the oldest creature, what of Tom Bombadil? What of the Elves awakening first? And what are we supposed to do about the connection of ents -> trolls that Treebeard mentions, considering Tolkien was refining his “problem of thinking evil creatures” up until his death?

(For that matter, what are we supposed to do about giants, who are only mentioned in an off-handed passage in The Hobbit?)

In Letter 180, Tolkien writes: "I have long ceased to invent...I have no recollection of inventing Ents...I wrote the 'Treebeard' chapter without any recollection of any previous thought." 

This seems largely true. Here are the accompanying notes to the first draft of Treebeard's appearance from The Treason of Isengard:

Did first lord of the Elves make Tree-folk in order to or through trying to understand trees?

Notes for Treebeard.

In some ways rather stupid. Are the Tree-folk ('Lone-walkers') hnau that have gone tree-like, or trees that have become hnau?

Treebeard might be 'moveless' - but here are some notes [?or) first [? suggestions].

There are very few left. Not enough room. 'Time was when a fellow could walk and sing all day and hear no more than the echo of his voice in the mountains.'

Difference between trolls - stone inhabited by goblin-spirit, stone-giants, and the 'tree-folk'. [Added in ink: Ents.] 

There are some gems in these notes that make my hair stand on end. "Did the first elves make Tree-folk in order to understand trees"? "Hnau"? "Goblin spirits"? 

Let's dig into it.

Elves and the Origins of Ents

If we take him at his word, Legolas can hear the speech of the stones of Hollin: 

“But the Elves of this land were of a race strange to us of the silvan folk, and the trees and the grass do not now remember them. Only I hear the stones lament them: deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone. They are gone. They sought the Havens long ago.”

Elves can talk to things, even seemingly unliving things.

Treebeard says as much in The Two Towers: "Elves began it, of course, waking trees up and teaching them to speak and learning their tree-talk. They always wished to talk to everything, the old Elves did."

And here is one of the contradictions between the trilogy and the Silmarillion. The Silmarillion goes into some depth about how speech was evidence of sentience, and sentience can only be given by Ilúvatar. Ipso facto, Ents must have been made by Ilúvatar "off screen."

I think we can accept this lore of the Silmarillion as being an editorial contradiction - because the text of The Hobbit and the trilogy is just full of things that talk: troll purses, foxes watching hobbits sleep, speaking thrushes and ravens, etc.

Needling at the point of elves "creating" Ents, let's look at the rest of the first draft of the Treebeard chapter. Treebeard says: "But it was not so, of course, in the beginning. We were like your Tombombadil [sic] when we were young."

Tom Bombadil is one of those other "problems" about Middle-earth, but I think it's pretty well solved in this passage from The Lost Tales:

And with them came many of the lesser Vali who loved them and (...) these are the Mánir and the Súruli, the sylphs of the airs and the winds.


About them fared a great host of sprites of trees and woods, of dale and forest and mountain-side, or those that sing amid the grass at morning and chant among the standing corn at eve. These are the Nermir and the Tavari, Nandini and Orossi, brownies, fays, pixies, leprawns, and what else are they not called, for their number is very great: yet must they not be confused with the Eldar, for they were born before the world and are older than its oldest, and are not of it, but laugh at it much, for had they not somewhat to do with its making, so that it is for the most part a play for them...

In the early days of Tolkien's conception - perhaps during the work of writing the trilogy - Middle-earth was a populous place of fairy spirits, "brownies, fays, pixies." These spirits made the world through the Ainulindalë and dwelled in it because they loved it.

Treebeard saying that he was like Tom Bombadil is telling. If Tom Bombadil is a genus loci, so is Treebeard. Both have the same origins. 

Elves woke up spirits who dwelled in trees to try and understand trees. These spirits are part of the host of "sprites of tree and wood."


Tolkien's marginal text is curious here. "Hnau." What is that word? Is it a word from his own conlangs? 

Actually, "hnau" is from C.S. Lewis - it was used in his Space Trilogy to mean "rational species." Earth only has one, but Mars had three. Middle-earth seems to have several.

I love that Tolkien borrows the word here as he's thinking about the origin of "rational species" in Middle-earth, and wondering if Ents qualify.

As an aside, it seems to me that using a fictional word like hnau would put to rest the complaints of folks who object to using the word "race" for fantasy species in roleplaying games.

The Origins of Trolls (and Giants)

In The Two Towers, Treebeard says: "Maybe you have heard of Trolls? They are mighty strong. But Trolls are only counterfeits, made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves."

The problem of wholly evil "hnau" (ha ha now I can't stop using the word) was something Tolkien wrestled with until his death. It seems much of fantasy fandom is still noodlin' on it. But we can make some educated guesses based on the text on the relationship of trolls and Ents.

First, the word "ent." In Letter 157, Tolkien shows his work: "As usually with me they grew rather out of their name, than the other way about. I always felt that something ought to be done about the peculiar A. Saxon word ent for a 'giant'— to whom all old works were ascribed."

You see the element "ent" before you meet an ent in the text in a toponym. The Ettenmoors, which the hobbits travel through on the way to Elrond's house, means "Troll moors." They also call them the "troll fells." Etten is derived from ent (in English).

You can see the linguistic association between trolls and Ents and giants. 

If we can imagine that Elves can speak to trees to wake up the Ainur spirits that dwelled within them, we can also imagine that the Enemy could do the same with stone. In fact, "normal thing possessed by an evil spirit" is Tolkien's go-to explanation for all sorts of monsters: werewolves, wargs, vampires, etc.

And if "ent" is derived from giant, and the linguistic element can also be applied to trolls, I don't think it's far out to say that the giants that Bilbo spots playing stone-toss in the valley are probably of the same "sort" of creature. Mountain trolls. Big ones.


Tolkien once joked in a letter that his works had no editorial errors, he was merely given faulty materials because he was translating the work of hobbits and there wasn’t space to clarify everything.

Middle-earth "rings true" to audiences because it has *room* for these sorts of inconsistencies. I think they enrich the text, not detract from it. Overexplaining and over clarifying takes away the feeling of history and mystery. 

Let the giants play in the valleys, I say.