Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Brief History of Tolkien RPGs (part four)


IX. And so, after WotC took a pass, the Tolkien license went to Decipher, who in 2002 produced their own LORD OF THE RINGS ROLEPLAYING GAME. Then in June/July 2001 I was caught up in the latest round of layoffs and left Wizards of the Coast. Before the day was out, I had a verbal agreement with the folks at Decipher, where most of Christian's Last Unicorn team had gone after leaving WotC at the time of the previous layoff, to work on their Tolkien rpg. My contribution was to write descriptions of the game world; hence the first section of the main rulebook, "There and Back Again: The Realms of Middle-Earth" is mainly my work (material which was re-used in booklet form as the text in the MAPS OF MIDDLE-EARTH boxed set [2002]).

Once again rather than create a rules system to match Tolkien's world, Decipher decided to use their pre-existing house system (the CODA System), created for their Star Trek game, for their new LotR game. Given that their license came directly through New Line, they were not only able to use the era and characters from The Lord of the Rings (i.e., the end of the Third Age), but their books were chock-full of movie art, most illustrations being stills from the films. Unfortunately, since they were dependent on the films and, like many media licensing deals, had an onorous approval process to go through, their releases sadly lagged behind the films themselves: for example, their MORIA boxed set, which shd ideally have come out around the end of 2001 or early 2002, didn't see release until 2003; their Rohan sourcebook, which I wrote roughly half of, never came out at all. It soon became clear that Decipher's main interest lay, not unreasonably, in the real money-maker, their LotR collectable card game, and the roleplaying game languished. Eventually (June 30th 2007, according to Wikipedia, the Source of All Knowledge) their license expired, with the result that currently there is NO Tolkien roleplaying game being published, a situation unprecedented since the early 1980s.

X. And so, here we are. The license is currently in abeyance, awaiting re-licensing for the forthcoming HOBBIT movie(s). There will no doubt be yet another Tolkien rpg in a few years' time, but if history is any guide it will probably appear from a second-tier publisher and make a relatively minor splash, being more collected and read than played. Most Tolkien fans will continue to get their gaming fix through homebrew campaigns or tweaks to their favorite game system --most recently d20/3.5/Open Gaming, now no doubt soon to shift towards 4th edition D&D/GSL, given its solution to the longstanding 'cleric-less adventuring' problem. Just as attention has shifted over time from Tolkien boardgames (SPI in the late '70s) to rpgs (ICE in the '80s and '90s, Decipher in the new century) to collectable card games (ibid), so now MMOs rule the roost, like Turbine's The Lord of the Rings Online [2007ff]), and it is here that the bulk of attention will focus next time around.Nt6 It also seems likely that such efforts will be tied more closely to the films than Tolkien's books; certainly THE SILMARILLION, UNFINISHED TALES, et al. will play no significant role.

But, just as Decipher released a roleplaying game as well as a ccg, we will almost certainly get not just new LotR computer games but also yet another new rpg (with yet another new rules system), a new ccg, a new collectable miniatures game, &c. In the meantime, we have fan-based efforts such as Other Hands, Other Minds, and, more recently, MERPCon's EÄ Project, whereby those who combine a love for JRR Tolkien's work with a love for gaming create their own rules in order to enjoy their own versions of Tolkien gaming.

--John D. Rateliff, July/August 2008.


Note 1. As collaborating evidence of this obvious fact, cf. the second sentence of the first paragraph of the 'Fantasy Supplement' to CHAINMAIL, the miniatures rules system that preceded Dungeons & Dragons and directly gave rise to it:

"Most of the fantastic battles related in novels more closely resemble medieval warfare than they do earlier or later forms of combat. Because of this we are including a brief set of rules [i.e., the 'Fantasy Supplement'] which will allow the medieval miniatures wargamer to add a new facet to his hobby, and either refight the epic struggles related by J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers; or you can devise your own 'world,' and conduct fantastic campaigns and conflicts based on it. (emphasis mine*)

*my citation comes from page 28 of the third edition of CHAINMAIL [1979]; my thanks to Scott Riddick and all at for confirmation of the fact that this sentence reads the same in the earliest printings.

Note 2. Or, in the special case of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar tales, a double-hero who can trade off taking center stage and act as each other's sidekicks at need.

Note 3. This is a reference to the Nazgul being the original wraiths in CHAINMAIL; in the first and second editions of that work, the entry on Wraiths read "WRAITHS (Nazgul, etc.):". I am grateful to Scott Riddick at The Acaeum, the D&D game collector's site, for helping me confirm this information.

Note 4. Compare the unattributed illustration of a dragon pursued by a knight in the CHAINMAIL booklet with Pauline Baynes' illustration of Farmer Giles pursuing Chrysophylax Dives in Farmer Giles of Ham (page 44, third edition [1975]). The CHAINMAIL illustration† is clearly redrawn, almost traced, from Baynes' work, the main difference being the farmer's replacement by an armored knight.

†This appears on page 37 of the third edition of CHAINMAIL, but I am told it appeared on the first page (page 33) of the Fantasy Supplement in CHAINMAIL 's first edition. My thanks to Allan Grohe, Scott Riddick, and all at the acaeum D&D collectors' forum for this information.

Note 5. They released a new entry-level game every year from 1991 to 1996, only the first of which could be considered a success.

Note 6. Kristen Thompson reports that the computer games based on the three Jackson films made about a billion dollars per film. (THE FRODO FRANCHISE, page 9).

My thanks to the many who helped me in my research of specific details for this piece, including Bruce Leonard, Allan Grohe, Scott Riddick and all at (cf., Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull, Shelly Baur, Angus Abranson, Jeremy Edmonds, David Pulver, Roderick Robertson, and Dave Watry of And my thanks to Hawke Robinson, the organizer of MERPcon, for inviting me to give this year's Guest of Honor speech.


Mike Mearls said...

A very interesting read! Thanks very much for posting it. The mind boggles at the realization that the world has yet to see a professionally produced and published RPG system designed specifically for Middle Earth.

John D. Rateliff said...

Staggering, isn't it? But that's my conclusion. The closest we've ever come is the original D&D itself. And even as late as 3.5 D&D, stripped down to its basics and moderately home-ruled, was the closest thing to a Tolkien rpg out there.

Maybe the next time there's an official licensed Tolkien rpg things will be different.


--John R.

Paul said...


You mention LotR lost out to Star Wars at WotC. You say that history has shown that to be an unwise choice.

I'm asking if that's because Star Wars overall hasn't been lucrative for them, or you believe LotR would have been even more lucrative than Star Wars.

And thanks for the very interesting read. I didn't think I would be as engrossed as I was!

Dylan Gault said...

Excellent stuff.

I'm lucky enough to be teaching a university class next semester studying RPGs, and I'll be incorporating some of this into my lecture on the history of RPGs.

I hope you wouldn't mind answering a couple of questions.

What, to your mind, would be key to a real Tolkein RPG system? I'm not sure what you would have in mind here, as there are a number of ways to address this question. I find systems like Legend of the Five Rings and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Earthdawn to be fascinating because their game rules fit the metaphysics of the setting, as it were. But there are of course other ways to chose mechanics that capture aesthetic qualities of the setting/genre.

I would also be interested to know the outcome of that debate on healing in the WOTC version of the Tolkein RPG.

buzz said...

Burning Wheel is the closest we have come to a LOTR RPG. The core lifepaths have yet to be out-Tolkiened, IMO.

AccidentalFraser said...

While I never actually played MERP, those ICE modules were awesome resources for great D&D campaigns.

Thanks for a very informative and entertaining read!

Rob Conley said...

Having collected and played through everything mentioned in this series I say the closest that anybody has gotten to an RPG specifically for Middle Earth is ironically Middle Earth Online.

If I somehow had the license to do a Middle Earth RPG I would be looking at them for strengths and weaknesses.

The key is the Morale mechanic. As it presented in LOTRO I am not sure it would be suited for RPGs.

In LOTRO Morale replaces hit points. When you goto zero you retreat and wind up in a nearby sancutuary where you recover.

The "healing" classes as such don't "heal" you they "inspire" you through song, or other means.

For example I can regain morale as a guardian by crouching behind my shield for a brief instant.

This mechanic is key to me in making LOTRO feel like Tolkein's world.

I will say that the new Rune Keeper class doesn't feel very Tolkein to me or my friends. It is the game's first "blaster" type class and feels out of place. There is a thin thread of justification.

Again LOTRO does a lot of things right including putting you right there in the main books without interfering with the fellowship. (Basically the players either run interference or are the cleanup crew, especially in Moria).

John D. Rateliff said...

Paul: I would say that STAR WARS had already had a successful rpg (the d6 system one from West End), and that at this late date any rpg revisiting that universe would reap diminished returns. What little I know of the history of the WotC Star Wars game bears that out: it's been successful enough for them to keep renewing the license, but it's never had more than a small fraction of D&D's audience. I think Tolkien D&D would have commanded a LARGE fraction of D&D's audience.

Dylan: I'm glad you've found my piece useful; let me know how the class goes. As for your question, I hold up CALL OF CTHULHU and PENDRAGON as two examples of rules systems built from the ground up to match the setting and concept, not imposed upon it from outside.
A successful Tolkien rpg would first and foremost need to come to grips with the problem of player spellcasters -- every attempt I've seen relies heavily upon this decidedly non-Tolkienian element.

Rob: Yes, from what little I've seen of LotR Online it provides a template so far as player-charcter activities go that a successful rpg would do well to build on.

Thanks for the comments, folks. Always good to learn things I didn't know about a subject I'm this interested in.