Monday, February 13, 2017

What do the characters do?

OK, so if you click on the MIDDLE-EARTH REMIXED tag that I've created (see below, or off to the side), you'll get up to speed; the tl;dr version can be summarized with a few bullet points.  You'll need to be at least passingly familiar with Norse and Irish mythology and some Classical and Dark Ages history to make some of the references.
  • What if Lord of the Rings was sword & sorcery instead of high fantasy?
    • There would be much more swashbuckling action.
    • There wouldn't be PC elves and dwarves—they'd be scary, fairy, otherworldly villains a la Dunsany, Goethe, etc..
    • Orcs would be man-apes.  This is more cosmetic rather than substantial, but it gives you that savage Burroughs/Howard feel.  Uruks can be like chimpanzees, regular Moria orcs or snagas like baboons.  Maybe the gorillas take the place of cave trolls, even.
    • There would be a patina of darker, almost horror elements with regards to the elves and dwarves—Tolkien already does a remarkably good job of doing horror elements for the actual villains, though.
    • I've got an Eriador in decline, Rivendell is a Dunedain stronghold with a captive Elrond providing advice a la Mímir, I've got Lothlorien and Mirkwood that are dangerous fey places where, if you return at all, you return a la Oisín.  It's not as empty as it is in the books, but it's very much in decline.  Even the rump-states of Arthedain, Cardolan and Rhudaur are probably too advanced and well-organized for what I see in Eriador.  
  • Looking at Tolkien's own very brief (it's only a sentence or two in the Forward added to later printings of Fellowship) alt.LoTR I've got a Middle-earth where Gandalf took the ring from Bilbo and conquered Mordor and enslaved Sauron (although he's got his hands full trying to keep on top of such an unruly conquest.) 
    • Saruman has filled in the holes of his own ring-lore and created a rival One Ring (so I guess now there's Two Rings.) Orthanc and Barad-dur are at war.  
    • Gondor is falling into chaos in the meantime, but is a little bit outside of the immediate cross-hairs, at least.
    • The Witch-King has reestablished Angmar and is loyal still to Sauron, or at least the concept of Sauron freed and in possession of the Ring again.  This creates a Cold War between three Dark Lord poles—Mordor, Isengard and Angmar.  The peoples of Gondor and Eriador in the meantime struggle to maintain their independence while these dark lords as yet ignore them as lesser threats than their own Dark Lord rivals.
  • There are more independent and smallish communities than the Lord of the Rings posits; i.e., the Shire wasn't necessarily so singular as all that.  Local Eriadorans and even Gondorans, especially from further away than the core regions near Minas Tirith and Osgiliath, are relatively plentiful. Minhiriath and Enedwaith aren't abandoned, for example, and Tharbad still thrives, although perhaps as a provincial city-state—to give just a few examples.
  • If the Rohirrim are to be seen as similar to the Anglo-Saxons, and the men of Dale and other Northmen of Wilderland are to be seen as various other Germanic peoples (Norsemen, Franks, etc.) as Tolkien envisioned, what "cultural calques" can be used as short-hands for the other groups?
  • Native Eriadorans patrolling their turf.
    • Easterlings come in more than one flavor.  Pseudo-Scythians and Huns are the ones I'd prefer to see.
    • Gondor should be seen as similar to waning Imperial Rome.  The Dunedain in Eriador can be seen as even more waned; not unlike the Romano-British trying to hold on to a hybrid Roman/Celtic High Culture in the wake of Anglo-Saxon invasions, and the abandonment of central authority.
    • The natives of Eriador, Minhiriath, etc. can be seen—as Tolkien kind of hinted at with some of his details on Bree—as Celtic.  You may want them to be more swashbuckling Gaulish warriors prior to Julius Caesar's conquest ("Vae victis!"), or more like the  melancholy rump-states of medieval Wales, Cornwall, Powys, etc.; either works for me.
    • I see this as a "protagonist culture" however, whereas the Dunlendings, which also had some Celtic influences hinted at are very definitely the "bad guys."  I think here, going for an early native Hispanic feel; i.e. the Hispania that Rome conquered as part of the Second Punic War—a mixture of native Iberian peoples and Carthaginians.
    • Speaking of which, Umbar can definitively be seen as similar to Carthage or the Semitic Levant (i.e. Palmyra and Herod, etc.), and near Harad should be seen as North African with maybe a nomadic Semitic population.  Full-blown Arabized Haradrim is not what I'm looking for, though.  There's nothing quite like Islam in Middle-earth (save maybe the cult of Sauron.)  Something more like Roman-era Berbers would be the right speed.
So, that's MIDDLE-EARTH REMIXED in a nutshell.  It begs a few questions—what in the world do characters actually do in such a setting?  I've got a few ideas.  The best games probably intertwine several of them to varying degrees, as the players take interest and pursue (hopefully of their own initiative) any and/or all of these potential concepts:
  • Just because there's a Cold War brewing between Angmar, Isengard and Mordor doesn't mean that characters need to be involved in it directly. Wandering around Middle-earth looking for fame and fortune in the time-honored RPG fashion is still acceptable.  Many of these small communities are under threat from troops that are passing through, or setting up their own domains, or just evil and fell things displaced by the general chaos.
  • The original concept of the rangers (of Middle-earth) wandering guerilla warriors of sorts who protect the peaceful communities of Eriador, can be expanded into Gondor, the Wild, and elsewhere.  There's lots to do here, much of it paramilitary in nature, where opposing the actual foot-soldiers of Angmar, Isengard and Mordor is probably day-to-day work, and raids on hostile strongholds might be common.
  • Just because the Dark Lords are obviously bad, this doesn't follow that everyone else is on the same page with each other.  Is Rohan engaged in political back and forth with Minas Tirith?  Is Rivendell looking to more fully integrate and demand tribute from The Shire? Or Tharbad?  Are enemy agents from Dunland infiltrating these kingdoms and needing to be dealt with? Are there shortages of goods that open up black markets that need to be met? You can rarely go wrong with intrigue and skulduggery.
  • In a truly heroic game, toppling one or more of the Dark Lords can be seen as a legitimate goal, of course.  This may even imply siding (at least temporarily in an "enemy of my enemy is my friend alliance not unlike Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin) with one of the Dark Lords against another only to be (most likely) stabbed in the back by deceit when your usefulness is at an end.  Of course—this could be part of the fun, and canny players will expect that and (hopefully) do something to prepare for it.
  • For some groups, openly and loyally allying with one of the Dark Lords might even be an option.  It's obviously not heroic—but that doesn't mean that it might not be wildly entertaining.  Or maybe they want the rings for themselves to set themselves up as rival Dark Lords in turn!

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