Home ] Tolkien Syllabus ] [ magicalquotes ] magicintolkien ]


Getting the Tone Right:

Running Campaigns in Middle Earth


(Mis-) Conceptions

It helps, when reading or GMing Tolkien, to rid yourself of many of the conceptions of fantasy and FRPG. Fantasy has the misfortune of being science-fiction's sibling. I'll not deny the similarities, nor the fruitful cross-fertilization, but the applica tion of science-fiction principles to fantasy often maims the latter. Especially the main theory of science-fiction critiscm.

 Briefly put, much science-fiction criticsm assumes the fictional world to be ruled by laws, which may or may not match our own in every detail but do in bulk. Science-fiction then tinkers with the laws and creates stories about worlds where this or that variation of natural law is true. Science-fiction is "hard" when its rules match scientific theory closely or exactly, "soft" when they do not. (E.g., 2001 is "hard", Star Trek, "soft.") Fantasy fits in at the far end of the scale, as very "soft" indeed.

Now, there is no inherent disagreement between this and Tolkien's own theory of sub-creation. Indeed, it IS Tolkien's theory of sub-creation, with the religious aspect scrubbed away. However, people hardly ever noticed how very unlike our own physical law is to that of Middle-Earth, and so the elves and what not are warped to fitting an essentially modern view of the world.

Elves first. Elves no longer connotate -- to roleplayers and fantasy-readers thank God! -- tiny winged midgits . Even Fairies, now spelled Faeries, have lost their Victorian coyness. But we have not returned to the raw medieval -- or even earlier -- view. Instead, I would hazard, we think of Elves as something like Mr. Spock: human with pointy ears. Since both of us are basically fellow animals, we might best call elves another species or subspecies of humanity (and people have). Elves might be better sorcerors, or have stronger "magic" genes, or longer life, but, otherwise, they're no different from us than ET (or Spock).


Elves are not so much like aliens as they are like Angels. Now, both words are wrong, but, if I had choose one or the other, "angel" is better. Tolkien's elves, as far as I can gather, are inherently magical. They are not just stronger and longer-lived in scale, but their bodies are better than ours in kind. They are almost (in a Platonic sense) more Real. (Not that I think Tolkien had much truck with Plato.) They are part of the same "class" of super-human beings beginning with the Valar and the Maiar and working its way down. The Valar are sometimes called "gods", the Maiar, then, are just little gods. What does that make the elves? Little, little gods, and, hence, in these terms, not so hard to imagine as different in kind to mere humans. Because Elves and Men mingle so often in the LOTR this point is often missed in the mundanity of watching, for instance, Legolas eat or talk or banter, but the difference is there. It comes out clearer, I think, in The Sillmarillion.

The second trap we are likely to blunder into is in thinking about magic in too modern a way.

Science-fiction assumptions the some set of physical law governs the secondary world. So what is magic? The usual options are: 1) that magic is a capacity to suspend the laws of the secondary world by the power of the mind, that 2) magic is a kind of physics practiced by people in pointy hats or 3) magic is a kind of psi-power. Again, none of these options are logically troubling. Tolkien admits in the Letters that his world uses options 2) and 3). The problem is in the imaginative facility of the reader. A mind raised on sci-fi, or just plain sci assumes the existence of modern "physics" unless explicitly rejected. Thus the tendency to assimilate Middle-Earth to another planet (when it is our own) to make its elves into aliens (when, in fact, they reincarnate and fade and do many other odd things) to ignore, indeed, its mythic, pre-scientific nature. Superstition is a far better guide to the way things work in Middle-Earth than science. Talking Beasts, ancient curses, restless ghosts, unlucky names, &c. are all part of Arda -- and DNA is nowhere to be found.

Role-playing encourages similar fallacies. Levels, for instance, strike me as a rather poor way of describing a world where power is either inherent or absorbed (from Valinor or the Rings). Gandalf or Bombadil did not get their power by adventuring. They got it by being who they are. So systems where all PCs start out the same (albeit with differently weighted attributes) and work their way up the ladder, seems to me fundamentally misleading. And magic, in RP, is often treated as a kind of exception to physical law, embodied in some kind of  "juice" attracted to/produced by certain people, who can then burn some of it up to cast spells, but which is hardly a natural part of the world. Not that any of this is a reason to alter the RPG you're using unless you want to. But the discrepancy between "world" on one hand and "game mechanics" on the other, should at least be noted. The Game-Master can then take care that s/he describes the "world" (or no t), even if following the "game mechanics" in questions of rules. It is, after all, the verbal descriptions of the Game Master which convey the illusion of being there, and not the dice-rolling.

Speaking like Tolkien

It's interesting to experiment, as a Game Master, with imitating the style of writing of the author whose world you're using. I tried to do something of the sort in my 1995 fall Amber game. (Did it work? I'll need to ask the participants, if they ever read this.) Language, word-choice, and syntax reflect the personality of the author and -- more importantly, the personality of the world. So it's important to get them right.

The Chronicles of Amber could never be written in the style of The Lord of the Rings, or visa versa. Zelazny (or Corwin, at least) was a smart-ass. You can see it in the way Corwin flirts with the nastiest, most cynical sayings, often giving them a humorous little flip. Corwin can also be poetic, of course, and the Amber books have some of the most beautifully precise images I have ever seen. They are almost always accompanied by a lash of bone-crushing cynicism.  He's Raymond Chandler with a sword.  Blame it on Shadow Earth. Corwin knows what a DJ is, what a newsreel looks like, who Freud was, met Van Gogh, and complained about German tourists, etc. Because Corwin speaks to us in our own post-radio, post-television, mass-market speech, we can forget that Corwin is a nasty, ruthless, superhuman creature.

No authorial style could be more different from Tolkien's. Perhaps I have erred in not writing this entire guide in a Tolkienian style, but that would have been difficult, if not impossible. Tolkien's preferred mode was sonorous, after old patterns, in old words. He was never a smart-ass. The closest he got, as far as I can see, is ironic or the bitter. The most Zelaznian thing he ever wrote was in The Hobbit, where he said the trolls "began to call each other all sorts of perfectly true and applicible names." And I imagine he later thought the sentence a failure of tone. (I must be careful what I write about him, though: he had little tolerance for opinionated idiots.) The hobbits, in so far as they are (as Shippey posits) the link between modernity and the world of the LOTR are not smart-assed either. They can be rustic, and they can be irreverant, but hardly ever cynical. And they had no connection to modern media (radio or televesion) nor referenced any technologicywhich couldn't have been manufactured by, say, 1600. They are modern, but they are not all that modern.

If you want a surface veneer of Tolkien remove all references to things recent. If you want to say something is big, it might be tempting to say, "big as a pickup-truck" or "big as Volkswagen Rabbit," but you probably shouldn't; think of some thing in the right size range that is a natural object, like, for instance, an oak tree or a horse. And try to keep some dignity, at least. Tolkien is reserved (not prudish) in a way seldom found in American college-students. If you wouldn't say it to your grandmother, don't say it as the GM. We never see Frodo urinating (unlike Corwin -- on his tomb, no less!) and there's hardly anything bawdy or lustful in the whole trilogy.

Vocabulary, too, must be carefully pruned. Not just the 4-letter variety of words. Zelazny can use any word he wants, and his words usually gain, not loose, by being yanked screaming out of their natural habitat. Not so Tolkien. His vocabulary remain s throughout the trilogy very basic, with preference given to native English. Get rid of Latin and Greek. No elf could ever say: "internal combustion engine" or "telephone" and not just because the concepts are foriegn. (Interestingly, palantir ( = tha t which sees from afar ) is not so different from television (= far sight )of the German fernseher ( = far-see-er) in meaning, but the difference between elvish roots and Greek (or German) ones lets us tell TVs from crystal-balls.)

Anything ending in -tion or -sion is immediately suspect, as are -ive and -ius. Words with the prefixes re-, pre-, and post-, too. What Romance language Tolkien lets in in usually comes through the French, and is old enough to be naturalized. Not that there aren't exceptions, but they are rare, and usually where native equivalents don't exist.

T.A. Shippey's The Road to Middle-Earth has an excellent discussion of these issues, particularly the words "rabbit", "tobacco", "potato" and, of course, "hobbit."


Anyone who names their Elf Fred should be shot. Or Polonius. Or Nero. Or Xergaphon. Or whatever. The Road to Middle Earth insists, correctly, I think, on the sheer centrality of names and their relationship to the depth of Tolkien's work as a who le, should be evident. To those who have not, I can only say that names carry with them a sense of identity with the thing named, and thier own inherent Englishness or Welshness or, whatever, suggest qualities of the thing named. So naming a character s omething stupid, is not, as it would be in an Amber campaign, a minor fault, but a cardinal blasphemy.

 Unfortunately, though the appendices to the Lord of the Rings give an excellent account of the names and name-origins of the LOTR, they are not much help in creating new ones or in naming either PCs or NPCs. GMs and players have a couple of options:

  •  Use the genealogies. These contain a cross-section from each culture described, and, if you look, you'll see that names are often repeated, so that if your character is named Turin or Helm, it's likely in honor of the other, more famous Turin or Helm. (The names of great heroes from The Silmarillion are always cropping up as names in Gondor, for instance.) Just make sure that you choose from the right culture's chart and that you won't be stealing the name of someone really famous, still living, or recently dead. (Or a king, with Al- or Tar- in the title.) A Boromir or Aragorn would get old real fast.
  • Use The Silmarillion. The Silmarillion has Elvish roots printed in the back. It would not be impossible (in theory) to shove them together as a new name for an elf or a High man. Unfortunately, you might be ramming together Quenya and Sindaran in your ignorance or ignoring some important sound change. (Not that it matters much for the purposes of a game, but you'd hate to make Tolkien spin in his grave, wouldn't you?)
  • Do some research. Tolkien took names from other languages (living and dead.) The dwarves are from the Icelandic Poetic Edda. The Rohhirim use Old English. Even Orcish has an (unfortunate) similarity to Arabic. So with some digging around, you can often cook up lists of names from the right language.

(c) Tom deMayo 2003.   Please do not reproduce this page without my permission.  Mention of other people's game systems, Trademarks, etc are without permission and purely for comparative purposes. No challenge to their status is intended. 

The material presented on the pages within http://www.flark.org/SoulEngine/GURPSSE/  is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games. GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games.  All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used there in accordance with the SJ Games online policy.

The Tri-Stat dX Core Rules are a trademark of Guardians Of Order, Inc. Used without permission.

The Discworld belongs to Terry and Lynn Pratchett.  Used without permission.  Ook!

Other mentioned books, game-systems, characters and so forth are properties of their respective owners, publishers, or whatever.  Used without permission.