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What System To Use For Tolkien’s Middle Earth Polyhedral

by merpadmin published Jan 13, 2016 09:10 AM, last modified Jan 13, 2016 09:10 AM

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What System To Use For Tolkien’s Middle Earth?

In Generic on February 11, 2009 at 10:03 am

 Over at Greywulf’s Lair, there is a very well written and inspiring post on how to do Tolkien’s Middle Earth with D&D 4E rules. Not d20, not OGL, but strict D&D, all inclusive. If it’s a beholder, then perhaps it’s a Morgoth construct from the second age, if it’s a lich then perhaps it’s a nazgul, if it’s an orc then it’s an… orc. In the comment section to that post, it was mentioned that even though it is feasible,perhaps D&D 4E isn’t the best system to use when playing in Middle Earth. If this is true, then what system would be best? Read on for my take on different systems in Tolkien’s world.

The first thing to do when solving a problem is to define the problem. In this case, the problem seems to be that we want to play in Middle Earth, but we don’t know what game system would suit us best. To be able to find the right system, first we must define what roleplaying in Middle Earth means. I’ll start by making some assumptions (presumtions?):

  • Background: Middle Earth is a world with a rich history and rich politics. Empires have risen and fallen and gods have meddled with the world.
  • Scope: Middle Earth is a mythic world. It’s destiny is shaped by legendary, powerful beings. Stories told in Middle Earth are intertwined with its legends and its destiny. It is not a world of low-level intrigue and farmer marketdeals.
  • Theme: Middle Earth is a world firmly rooted in the anglo-saxon, germanic and nordic mythologies. There are trolls and dwarves but no oni, naga or sasquatch.
  • Monsters: Middle Earth is a world where most monsters are powerful and unique or rare, the exception being the evil races of orcs, trolls, etc, but only a limited number of such races exist.
  • Magic: Middle Earth is a world of legendary,unique and rare magic both in terms of magic items and magic abilities. It is also a world permeated by a low-level magic seen in the snow-walking ability of Legolas or the endurance of the hobbits.

So with these assumptions in mind, let’s take a look at how some different systems fit the glove.

Dungeons & DragonsThe initiator to this post is a treatise on how to use the RPG granddaddy, specifically fourth edition, for Middle Earth roleplaying. Lets look at how it breaks down. Background seems like a good fit, 4E has its points of light philosophy that meshes pretty well with a Middle Earth built on the ruins of previous ages. The scope is also fitting, especially at paragon and epic tiers. When it comes to theme and monsters, it doesn’t hold together quite as well. D&D has its own set of mythology and a very disparate set of monsters. To be able to use the monster’s manual, you’d probably have to do some major re-skinning and re-factoring and show some restraints towards Displacer Beasts and their like, otherwise you might quickly lose your Middle Earth mood. The fifth assumption, magic is perhaps the most difficult one. Wizards are rare to the extreme in Middle Earth and changing this might mess with people’s conception of the world. On the other hand, the martial power source in D&D 4E seems to be a perfect fit for the supernatural senses and fighting prowess of Tolkien’s characters. All in all, I’d give D&D B-, with a bit of work it could be a pretty good fit.

Middle-Earth Roleplaying from ICE
MERPThis Rolemaster based game from the eighties should be the perfect fit for the world for which it is written, but alas, it is not. First of all, the game itself suffers from clunky mechanics by modern standards. Second, even though the game and it’s supplements are at times superb when trying to convey the feel of the world, it suffers from being Rolemaster Light and keeps part of the Rolemaster feel, for instance when it comes to magic. To go through the different assumptions, background is great, as is, to some extent scope and theme is also good. The monsters are better than the selection in D&D, but the clunky system makes them hard to use efficiently. Finally, the magic system, based on rolemaster is no better than the one i D&D and it lacks the martial powers that seem like a perfect fit for ME. Taken together, the clunky system and the great background yields a C+. It’s better for idea mining than for actual play.

Savage Worlds
Savage WorldsThe new darling of the roleplaying community, the fast furious and fun roleplaying system from Pinnacle seems on a first glance to be able to run Middle Earth pretty well. Savage Worlds is a toolbox system and as such, it can only be evaluated from a perspective of how usable those tools would be in the setting. Background and theme is up to you, the game gives you nothing, but makes no assumptions either. Scope is pretty well handled, though SW doesn’t seem to handle the high end of the scale as well as for example D&D, the sweet spot seems to be for what would be characterized as level 5-15 i 4E. Monsters are also your own game, though they are pretty easily statted in SW. When it comes to magic, SW is a generic, effects-based system, but I think there would be some work making it ME-specific. All in all, SW would probably be a good fit if someone put some effort into it, the one thing I don’t like in this setting is the pulp feeling that SW seems to convey that doesn’t match too well with the poetic nature of ME. I’d give it a solid B, but with some fan-work, that’s a B+.

GURPS 4th editionThis one stands out from the bunch due to the fact that I’ve actually successfully run a (short) campaign in ME using GURPS 3rd edition rules. It worked out pretty well, but more despite the rules than because of them. GURPS, up to and including its new 4th edition is a system striving for realism and as such, it is not a particularly good fit for the high fantasy setting of ME. As usual with a generic system, with background and theme you’re on your own. Scope could be ok, GURPS scales ok, but only into the supers setting, not into high fantasy. Monsters doesn’t really work out that well, GURPS has a more or less stated principle that adventuring should be about human adversaries and that’s where their focus lies. The magic system is spell-based and less easily modified than the SW effect-based system. Though I’ve used it successfully, I can’t really recommend GURPS for ME play, it’s a D, not unusable, but not very inspiring either.

What about the Lord of the Rings roleplaying game from Decipher? Well honestly, I don’t know anything about it. It may be great, but it hasn’t been supported for years. Still, if someone has played it, please give a review in the comments.

Do you have any experience of using different systems for Middle Earth roleplaying or for adapting another world for gaming?