Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A B/X Guide to Middle Earth (Part 1)

A lot of recent (virtual) ink has been spilled lately over the idea of adapting D&D to Tolkien's Middle Earth setting. I won't bother posting links...they're easy enough to find. Looking back through my own archived blog posts, I find a lot of this kind of thing, though I've never actually run such a campaign; much as I've enjoyed reading Tolkien's works (including the derivations from his son), I've always found Middle Earth's extensive history a bit too crowded for the insertion of new protagonists (i.e the player characters). However, it's possible I haven't given the idea enough of a fair shake.

After all, Tolkien's work has been the foundational muse for a huge swath of "high fantasy" works, everything from Stephen Donaldson to Robert Jordan to Terry Brooks to Weiss and Hickman's Dragonlance saga (substitute "Berem the Everman" for the One Ring and Takhisis for Sauron). While most of these are pretty terrible (sorry), there's little doubt they're popular, having sold millions and millions of copies over the years. Perhaps the theme and (common) story strikes a chord in people; perhaps folks just wish they could get MORE Tolkien and are willing to gobble up whatever is offered. In the end, the reason doesn't matter terribly...we know the formula works.

Even so, for a D&D campaign, few folk are interested in playing in the shadow of greatness: they want their adventures to be open, not tied to wars and battles and heroic deeds being done by NPCs. So, for those interested in exploring the beauty and wonder of Middle Earth without worrying about Aragorn and Frodo and the Dark Lord Sauron etc., the question arises: where to set the campaign? Or, more accurately, when?

For me, I'd go ahead and start such a campaign circa the year 1300 T.A. (Third Age).  The hobbits have begun moving west, though the Shire won't be settled for another 300 years...their race is still restless and adventurous, though they still display their love for simple farming life (when they can find it). There are still kings in Gondor, Rhovanion, and Arnor, though that last has been broken into three lesser kingdoms. There are still dwarves in Moria (and will be for 600 years) and Erebor ("Lonely Mountain") has yet to be founded.  Elves are found in the usual places but their power, like Gondor, is much in decline. The Istari (wizards) have entered Middle Earth, but have only been around for a couple centuries.

Using the Third Age as a setting precludes
any appearance by Morgoth. Be glad.
As far as "evil" goes, the Witch King has moved into Angmar, but has not yet become the powerful threat it will be in another century. Orcs are beginning to infest the Misty Mountains and Greenwood has already become Mirkwood. Sauron is in Dol Guldur (masquerading as "the Necromancer") but has little direct influence for a thousand years. Smeagol ("Gollum") will not discover the One Ring for another eleven centuries, so THAT's not a worry. The fall of Numenor occurred two thousand years prior, but pockets of "Black Numenoreans" remain, causing assorted mischief, and old outposts make good dungeon environments for exploring and looting. Mordor exists, of course, and despite the absence of Sauron and his Nazgul, it remains the most perilous environment in Middle Earth. And there are plenty of human antagonists to contend with, including corsairs and pirates, bandits and "Easterlings." Plenty of glory and gold to be won by adventurous types, and no worries to be had regarding final conflicts with fallen gods.

Not bad at all.

Of course, some adjustments need to be made to the B/X rules to really get a "Middle Earth" feel. There are no clerics in the style of D&D, though I.C.E.'s Middle-Earth Role Playing game includes an "animist" profession to fill this niche (it also includes a "scout" profession to fill the role normally occupied by D&D's thief class). There is, in fact, very little magical healing in the Middle Earth setting, certainly not much that is easily accessible (though food, drink, and soft beds seem to have much the same power as healing potions in the fiction).

Magic, in general, is different from that found in the D&D game, being actually more common (every race exhibits some form of "magic") while decidedly less powerful (only the IstariMaiar, and Valar display great shows of power on par with a D&D "wizard").  Magical items tend to be usable by all classes of characters (wizards wield magic swords, warriors use crystal balls, etc.) but most such enchantments can have grave consequences when wielded by those who lack the proper training, control, and/or bloodline. The setting itself is full of the supernatural, though it is far more of the dark fairy tale story (talking animals, ancient curses) and less of the Strange Tales variety prevalent in your average D&D campaign (understandable in that the latter draws upon Howard and Lovecraft as much as Tolkien...if not more so).

An interesting challenge to try to write up a campaign guide for such a setting. Interesting, but not exactly what I'd call daunting.

I think I might give it a go. It's been a while since I've designed anything, really (well, other than this thing or two I was helping my boy with...). Plus, I really have all the books on hand that one could want for such a task: multiple "visual guidebooks," the collected works of Tolkien (including the Silmarillion), Chris Tolkien's books, a copy of MERP, plus the LotR fan wiki. Yeah, maybe something with hobbits and balrogs would be just the kind of thing to get my mental juices flowing...

Let me see what I can put together.


  1. I am very curious to see what you do. B/X has long been my "testing grounds" rules of choice, but this time I am opting for something else.
    1300 TA sounds like a good time to me as well. My game is still a bit off in the future, but that is fine since I want to plan it well.

    1. @ Tim:

      The main "problem" with using a 1300 TA in my mind is...no rangers! Since the Dunedain haven't become wanderers in the north yet (their kingdom is still around)...and the southern rangers (Faramir and his ilk) don't come around till centuries after THAT.

      I mean, it's not a HUGE deal (we are talking B/X here), but even with rangers, there's a dearth of variety in class type. Right now, I'm at five, unless I want to start breaking down humans into different "classes." I probably WILL do that with elves, by the way (a lesser elf versus the "high elves")...but who wants to play a "lesser man?"

  2. While I am not entirely convinced that shoehorning Tolkien into B/X is a good idea (the mechanical dissimilarities far outweighing the potential worth of such an endeavor, in my mind), if that is your goal, I would highly suggest you have a gander at The One Ring RPG, by Cubicle 7.

    It has quite a few excellent systems that really capture the atmosphere and intent of the Professor's works (I love the Journey system in particular) closer than I've ever seen a game manage. Part of this is because the author, my friend Francesco Nepitello, is a immensely knowledgeable Tolkien scholar who truly gets the setting in a way few do. I, personally, find it to be the best Tolkien RPG ever, and I was a big MERP player, back in the day.

    Also, C7 has produced a 5E version of the One Ring, called Adventures in Middle Earth. And while I have not read this particular iteration, not being a great fan of the mix, myself, it might provide insight into the conversion of Tolkien to D20 that might save you some work in the long run, by giving you an idea of what does and doesn't work for you, while translating the setting to B/X.

    Hope this helps...

    1. @ Mr. T:

      I agree it's a tough shoehorn, but I don't think it's undoable. The XP system will probably need to be re-worked (both rate and ways of advancement). OD&D is actually a better fit...in some ways anyway...but B/X is the one I'm used to working in.

      As I commented over on Tim's blog, I'm not familiar with the One Ring RPG at all. I'll try to get up to my neighborhood game shop and scope it out this week. If nothing else, it will add to my Tolkien collection (which is fairly sizable considering the less-than-enthusiastic use to which I put it. What is wrong with me?).

      Not terribly interested in 5E or its supplements...I'll probably skip that book.

  3. scout as a replacement for thief sounds interesting, since its more "keep a look out for enemies and maybe join in the fight" and less "i will steal everything i see and run away from combat"

  4. I want to be encouraging here. I have experimented with Middle Earth variants of ODD set in the north and far south TA 1300-2000 and have yet to solve all the issues to my satisfaction. Accounting for the Shadow or corruption seems important to me, but I perhaps have a darker interpretation of the setting than some. I appreciate your work on previous RPG topics and am also very curious to see what you come up with. That others are willing to share the fruits of their creativity is one of the absolute delights I find in this hobby.

    1. @ Fred:

      Thank you for the kind words. Your own observations are certainly of interest to me (maybe the setting DOESN’T work with the system), and I’ll be looking forward to your critique/feedback.

  5. I am currently working on an idea for handling corruption, but I do thing Middle Earth B/X or ODD is do-able. Rather than post a lengthy reply explaining some of my thoughts, may I offer this url to a post I wrote on my simple little blog https://whiteboxandbeyond.blogspot.com/2017/10/magic-in-middle-earth.html

  6. Looking forward to reading further posts about it!

  7. @ Ynas:

    Just been busy this week.

  8. Did you ever get around to doing a part 2 of this?

    1. Only in draft form, though I’m pretty sure I retain my notes. Let me look around…perhaps I can post a sequel.
      ; )