Lord of the Rings and RPGs

If I say that Lord of the Rings is the book that has most influenced role-playing games, outside of the RPG books themselves, I don’t think very many of you would disagree. Sure, there are going to be some voices that differ (because there always are), but I think I can safely assume most players would see it that way.

Now, since you are literate, you are probably a bit wary right now. “Where is this leading to? Why is he making such a big deal out of that?” Well, because if Lord of the Rings is the most influential book, why don’t RPGs look anything like it?

I started roleplaying with Red Box D&D. It was very narrow as it presented only levels one through three for our characters, but we did get a lot of play out of it before we were able to get other games. It had seven classes: Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric, Thief, Elf, Dwarf and Halfling. The three races were indeed just other classes in this system. They did follow the LotR model exactly. On top of the different humans, we had the exact same three races as in the book.

In those days we didn’t have access to a lot of genre literature in our small town in Finland, which meant that Lord of the Rings probably had even more profound effect on us. I remember there pretty much always being a character called Legolas in our group and I always had a fondness for Aragorn, although even then I found Boromir to be the more interesting Fighter type in the group, because of the difficult situation he was put in. So, we would hack and slash our way through multitude of orcs, goblins and other variations on the humanoid form, but never did we have an adventure like Lord of the Rings.

Of course, we weren’t very literate back in those days. We were pre-teens, who only saw the cool characters. But in reality, the role of the “cool” characters is just to show that power corrupts and its not always about being the most powerful being. In Lord of the Rings its actually quite the opposite. There’s a lot of powerful factions fighting each other, but in the end its two hobbits, who get the job done.

Now, how many RPGs enable or even encourage that? No, the games are much more interested in the fine details of killing other beings in fiction. In certain ways this does actually follow Tolkien quite well, because PCs with power tend to misuse it, even if they are supposedly good, because that’s what they wrote on the character sheet.

Now, at this point it would be natural to ask how one would actually implement mechanically, let alone execute on the table, a game that could actually simulate what those two hobbits did in an interesting way. My answer: I don’t know. I might have strong opinions on games, but I’m not an actual designer. The problem, as I see it, is that this should in no way be overt, but the players should be subtly influenced to work that way, which would be difficult. But hey, maybe there is someone out there who can do it.

(Not that I would probably even play it. It would be interesting though.)

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