Mountains on the Left, Ruins on the Right
It attempted to elevate the study of gaming innovation to a near-academic level of scrutiny. There wasn't quite peer review in the process, but generally speaking, if you had the audacity to publish an article in Other Hands, your peers were sure to have something to say about your work.
In today's world of trademark-centric business decision-making, Tolkien Enterprises was bound to clamp down with a Highlanderish "There can be only one game" attitude. Other Hands celebrated the beauty of the I.C.E. system, which was perhaps more well-known through its Rolemaster and Spacemaster product lines. Games Workshop and Decipher now hold gaming licenses derived from the Peter Jackson movies. And these companies are vying for the dollars of a shrinking marketplace. Regrettably, Other Hands was deemed a viable threat to the trademark.
Why? Was the growing subscriber base really shifting public opinion away from the licensed gaming companies? Most likely not. Except for occasional mentions in the Tolkien press, Other Hands -- like most gaming endeavors -- goes largely unnoticed by the larger community of Tolkien fans. The journal published some very good Tolkien research in its time, and I am one of the people who contributed content in the past. There are other Tolkien journals out there, but none which appeal to the American gaming community.
Adventure gaming is not what it used to be. In fact, I am not really sure of what it has become. Do people still sit around tables with pencil and paper, rolling dice and calculating statistics and averages? Do they enter into shouting matches when players invest themselves too emotionally in their characters, so that what happens to Gorik of Visborne also happens to Me?
Or is today's gaming a bit more sterile, somewhat more pumped and primed for action? Think about it. 30 years ago, a typical fantasy or SF movie would have a little action, but it usually depended upon special effects and some sort of love story to keep the audience interested. Oh, there would be a handsome prince and a bodacious babe in flimsy clothing whom some dark villain wanted to ravish or something, but the movies were usually silly love stories draped over with rayguns and swords.
Nowadays, we have bloody-fisted fighters taking out armies, fleets of spaceships blowing up, and hordes of Orcs dancing across the landscape as methodical Elven warriors butcher them en masse. The audience is titillated with fast-paced scenes depicting people getting to and from places with very little time. I remember a movie which was set entirely on a spaceship, where the audience saw neither the beginning nor the end of the trip. It was the journey which was important.
In today's "get there and beat the crap out of them" environment, gamers are offered near-instantaneous gratification in online games, console games, handheld games, and card games. You can assemble a very powerful character quickly and easily. Some die-hard purists, perhaps no more than 100,000 or so of them, wanted the now-defunct Middle-earth Online game to make it hard for people to advance in rank or skill with their characters. In particular, there were huge debates over whether player-versus-player duels should be allowed. After all, some online gamers wait for unsuspecting new players to start their characters out in obvious places. The player-killers (as they are called) savagely murder the new characters, get experience, and take their stuff.
In a virtual world, this sort of behavior wreaks havoc upon the psyche of the very real players. Some people just get turned off on the whole idea of playing in an online game. But the response to the player-killer menace (in part) was to create alliances, often called guilds. People look out for each other and try to keep the player-killers at bay. It's rather clan-like, and results in some fierce competitions. Or, so I'm told.
The idea of people forming gangs for the sake of mutual defense is a bit disconcerting to the traditional gamer. After all, we were taught that all the players should find ways to work together. RPGs were long touted as a great means of developing team spirit and cooperation. But in today's mega-games, players cannot possibly cooperate with hundreds or thousands of other players. Divisions and strife are inevitable.
Which leads us to the interesting question of how one would go about designing a Middle-earth which could be enjoyed by thousands of people. To be honest, you really cannot design a game which is faithful to Tolkien and still pleases the masses. This was the crux of the argument between the original design team for Middle-earth Online and their (then) new managers with Havas Interactive (now a part of Vivendi Universal).
Havas wanted a game which could truly appeal to the masses. The game designers said, "But...we have 100,000 players waiting to pay $10-20 a month to play in this system!" 100,000 players were not masses. They were trifles not to be messed with. And most of them would not qualify as Tolkien purists. Many of these players-in-waiting just liked the idea of getting to play an Orc or an Elf in a world which called itself Middle-earth.
Of course, that was 1999. Now, in 2002, we have all seen "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring", which zooms about the landscape, allowing us to look over the shoulders of Ringbearers, Elves, Uruk-hai, and anything else which gets in the way of the camera. The audience is rushed through a whirlwind series of adventures with very little indication that time is passing. Gandalf's "It will take us four days to pass through Moria" seems insignificant compared to the rapidity with which he gets the Fellowship from the ruinous west-gate to the hall where the Balrog takes him down.
I remember looking at the rule for encumbrances in the I.C.E. system and asking if we really had to figure out exhaustion factors and stuff. Fortunately for me, my college gaming group said they didn't worry about that stuff. Their characters usually didn't live long enough to unpack their supplies anyway. But we did spend a lot of evenings trying to get from town A to town B. There were many die rolls for perception, safe use of spells, random encounters, and -- oh yes -- the interminable battles. We so badly wanted to put those Rolemaster weapon tables on a computer. I started writing programs to do this several times, but the data entry task was just immense. It was depressing.
Would today's gamers put up with that? Have they been conditioned to do so? I know that, when I finally took a turn at running the game, I did everything I could to speed things up. I spent a week planning a single battle where twelve master adepts (very, very powerful wizards) attacked a group of high level player characters who had a small army of men-at-arms with them. I did as many rolls in advance as I could. I wrote up twelve sheets of bad-guy actions and rolls and had one of the players draw them at random.
The players loved it. They couldn't keep up with me. Most of the time, the game ref had to sit there and roll for each bad guy while the players at most might have had to roll for 2 or 3 characters. Today's computerized gaming systems remove that burden from the player. But they remove something else, too.
They take away our freedom to imagine the landscape passing by at a slow and ponderous pace. My college group thought nothing of spending three months plumbing the depths of a mountain fortress. I got rather sick of it after about six weeks. I was ready to kill every dwarf and rat I came across by the time the leader of the group agreed we'd better leave (it was too late -- we'd let the wizard's familiar escape and he was on his way back to make us pay for robbing him).
I remember spending days in forests, weeks sailing on ships, long nights of bartering and haggling at one shop, dozens, hundreds, or maybe thousands of melees. There were interesting characters to meet on the road, in the taverns, at the local gallows. We often got our butts kicked. We drew up a roll of honored dead, which started out with non-player characters (men-at-arms we hired) but eventually became dominated by the names of beloved characters which, in some cases, had been nurtured for years.
Some of my friends got married and had babies in those groups. I got married and left, and came back, and left again. Players came and went. The original group is no longer playing together, but one of the members keeps the tradition going, and his teenaged son -- who wasn't even born yet when we sat in his father's apartment, freezing and chattering away with pencils, paper, and dice in mid-winter as we struggled to get away from Cave Yuks -- has now joined the group. A whole new generation of gamers is gearing up to take on Pat Macy's gods, demigods, demons, devils, and dashing daring-doers. They'll be treated to mountains, villages, cities, towns, lakes, forests, caves, plains, hordes of undead, tribes of Orcs, and lost races and continents.
All of which has nothing to do with Middle-earth. And that is the problem with gaming in Middle-earth. It's virtually impossible to do. Gamers can relive Frodo's journey, but that's a bit of a let-down for a purist like me. What if Gandalf doesn't fall into the chasm? After all, it's not like the players don't know what's hanging out in Moria. What if Aragorn is slain before he becomes King? Does Arwen sail over Sea? Will Frodo make it to Mount Doom?
Some people might say the uncertainty of the outcome of such scenarios is what makes a Middle-earth game interesting. But to me, that is too much like playing monopoly, where the various tokens stop and have conversations with the houses and hotels on the boards. I suppose it might be bearable if I got to be the battleship or the car, but I really got tired of being the dog when I was a kid. My older brother would pick it up and say, "I'll get you, Missy. And you're little dog, too!"
Adventure gaming is supposed to be about exploring the unknown fastness of the imagination. Of course, Iron Crown Enterprises tried to open up the Third Age for gamers. They created histories and scenarios which fit neatly into Tolkien's greater chronology. But the problem with adventuring in Middle-earth is that the only times when Orcs, Trolls, and Dragons are plentiful enough to give everyone some kill points, they are usually in the ascendancy.
Tolkien is not kind to the good guys. They either fall into evil or folly or they are overrun. Evil is constantly overwhelming good in Middle-earth. There are final battles where the Dark Lords are overthrown, but getting to those battles is a long and bloody path. The average gaming group won't make it through in the pencil-and-paper gameverse. And the online crowd will mostly never get past their front door, since the player-killers will eschew all pretense of going after Sauron (who is too powerful anyway) in favor of just collecting experience and other players' stuff.
So, then, if all is hopeless and there is no way any self-respecting purist can enjoy a game set in Middle-earth, why should anyone care if Other Hands retreats before the menace of the Lawyers of Morder? There is no easy answer to that question.
Ultimately, Middle-earth thrives in each of Tolkien's readers. Many is the mind which wonders if there were other tribes of Northmen hanging out in the Vales of Anduin. And, if so, what were they doing all the time? And when Sauron's armies marched through Eriador, where did the people flee.
But more importantly, how did they rebuild? It would have been pretty interesting, actually, to wander across the landscape in the aftermath of the War of the Elves and Sauron. Yes, whole towns and villages were slaughtered. But people would have been restoring order to the lands. There would be frontier-like conditions everywhere. Lost fortunes lay buried in the ruins. Devastated kings and princes had to rally their people and vie for dwindling resources. Yet, ultimately, the good principles of Elven and Adanic cultures prevailed and civilization was rebuilt.
Many gamers might feel that Turin Turambar would be the perfect model for a gaming hero. After all, he was brave, strong, and always met up with kings and warriors who could help him. But Turin's problem was that his friends usually ended up dead. His decisions were usually so strategically bad he would be awarded far more negative experience points than positive ones.
Tuor and Idril Celebrindal would be better models for gaming heroes. They were fighters, but though their cause was lost in the north, they founded a new kingdom in the south. They did not end badly, like Turin, or simply fade away, like Beren and Luthien. They settled down in good, old-fashioned gaming hero tradition and became the leaders of a new land. They accomplished something, even if it wasn't lasting.
The Third Age was a horrible time-period in which to set an adventure game. The good guys won a few victories, but they were generally in retreat after Sauron arose. One could set a game in Gondor around the time the Haradrim and Black Numenoreans were still a threat, but that's about it. There were better prospects near the end of the First Age and in the Second Age. Of course, no gaming licenses will be issued for those ages.
So that puts gamers in a rather difficult position. If they want to be faithful to Tolkien, they have to find ways around his chronology, and the safest periods of time to risk altering everything are in the ages which the gaming companies don't address. Of course, not every gamer wants to be faithful to Tolkien, but it sure helps cut down on the arguments between purists and non-purists if the characters can wander off the map and out of the chronology.
But then, if they leave the map, they are no longer really in Middle-earth. Of course, if they play games based on the Peter Jackson movies, they are no longer in Tolkien's Middle-earth, either. They are just in Tolkien Enterprises' Middle-earth, or a variation of it.
Gamers will ultimately rebel against the constraints of The One Gaming System. They don't want to be told how to map out their world or what languages to propose for it, or how to act, behave, or enjoy themselves. They may get bored with the tediousness involved with creating a character, but they want to wander beneath the ancient oaks of Mirkwood, visit with the Ents, enjoy the hospitality of Elves and Hobbits, and fight Orcs. They want to kill Orcs and Dragons and Trolls and other evil things.
Eventually, the underground gaming community will expand its ranks with new secret modules and statistical systems. New gaming methodologies will be adapted from competitive role-playing systems. After all, you cannot prevent the gamers from buying your neat maps and using Steve Jackson's generic GURPS role-playing system to manage the adventure. The online games will continue to slide Middle-earth modules in through their gaming community doors.
In the end, the attempt to crush impure gaming design will only lead to a greater diversity of gaming innovation as the community learns to ignore Tolkien Enterprises. Whether they ignore the licensees as a result of the trademark enforcement is an open question. The best Tolkien purist gaming can only be set up outside of the licenses Tolkien Enterprises controls. No one will ever win a license for such gaming. It will remain a fringe activity, an illicit pipeline to the popular imagination.
In the end, this misguided attempt to enforce a trademark will diminish its value. Gaming consistently requires one thing from its players regardless of what system they use: the free use of their imagination. Sauron failed to control the free wills of his enemies and was finally overthrown. No one, not even the Tolkien Estate, will be able to control the imaginations of the gamers. They may find themselves as powerless and irrelevant as Sauron was, and thereby lose out on a lot of money. Revolutions are like that, and they are often ignited through the defiance of simple acts of repression.
Michael Martinez is the author of Visualizing Middle-earth, which may be purchased directly from Xlibris Corp. or through any online bookstore. You may also special order it from your local bookstore. The ISBN is 0-7388-3408-4.
And be sure to download your free copy of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, 3rd edition at Free-eBooks.Net!