License to Roam

Posted by on Nov 9, 2011 in Books, MMOs, Play, RPGs, Video Games, Websites | 10 Comments

I’ve just scratched the surface of Lord of the Rings: War in the North but I’d been looking forward to this game for a while. What drew me in was its promise of an original story set in Middle-earth’s less-visited locales, like Mirkwood or the ruined city of  Fornost, all rendered with a mix of the movies’ art style and original visions of Tolkienesque landscapes. Plus it promised a chance to face down Orcs and Trolls in a cooperative slugfest, which sounded like it’d be fun if I could get anyone else to buy the game with me. (No luck so far.)

War in the North faces the problem that so many Gamemasters face when telling stories in licensed worlds, though. How do you get players invested in this tale when we know that the main thrust of the War of the Ring involves, you know, that infamous ring? Who cares about the stories Tolkien chose not to tell?

For me, it’s as simple as getting a chance to see artists tackle parts of Tolkien’s world that haven’t been painted so many times before or rendered in CG-enabled faux-helicopter shots in Peter Jackson’s grand trilogy. If I get a few charming side quests, some rollicking boss monsters, and some engaging combat, I’ll be happy. I’m hungry for this just as I turned out to be hungry for Lord of the Rings Online, only here I expect more bloody battles and fewer quaint quests. (Though I love both those things, when the mood strikes me.)

Middle-earth is a world of many, many narrative sketches. Tolkien’s histories of Middle-earth suggest all sorts of drama and strife that could’ve made for great tales. That he chose not to tell them left them open to our imaginations in a way that’s sort of wonderful. It makes Middle-earth feel, to me, more vast and varied.

Does that mean we should limit the games inspired by Tolkien’s works to those stories he chose to detail as novels, to respect what he chose to focus on? Or does it mean craftspeople like game developers, sound designers, and concept artists have as much right to wonder and explore Middle-earth through their work as we readers do?

Here’s a bit from Greg Tito’s review of the game from The Escapist:

Even the characters’ battle cries are authentic – my heart leapt every time I heard Andriel exclaim “A Elbereth Githoniel!” as she bashed an orc across the face with her staff. War in the North also allows drama to emerge from events that are only described in the books. It is undeniably sad to hear Elrond’s sons discuss their mother’s abduction by orcs, and her subsequent departure across the seas to Valinor. Knowing that she was held captive is one thing, but watching Elladan and Elrohir describe her torture is quite another, and War in the North adds emotional value to cold character details.

Tito, like me, seems eager to see lesser-known aspects of Middle-earth dramatized in the game. Part of the charm of the experience comes from seeing Tolkien’s ancillary lore used as inspiration for new scenes, new dialogue, new adventures. I enjoy seeing creators working in Tolkien’s style, with Tolkien’s palette, riffing on his sketches.

In contrast, Kotaku’s Mike Fahey seems to reject the whole premise of playing in Middle-earth without taking part in the grand, familiar quests. Here’s an excerpt from Fahey’s review at Kotaku:

My party of three was tasked with delaying a gathering army to the north, giving the ranger and his hobbit friends time to escape the clutches of the Black Riders. For a brief, shining moment, I was an active part of the main story.

The feeling didn’t last. Soon I was off on a mission to take down an evil menace never directly mentioned in The Lord of the Rings proper, a generic villain perfectly suited to my generic heroes. Though well designed and rendered, the familiar locations I passed through might as well have scenic postcards from distant friends, informing me how much they wished I was with them on a mission with more meaning.

(Emphasis mine.) I wonder if Fahey’s the sort of player who would find a session of a licensed tabletop RPG unsatisfying, knowing that Luke and Leia are off thwarting the Empire somewhere. To be fair, he may simply have wanted War in the North to better persuade him of its own importance, but that bit sure sounds to me like he rejects the very premise of a licensed game that roams away from “the main story.”

I get the appeal of being the big, epic hero, especially in a game. Whether it’s a video game or an RPG campaign, though, I am sort of baffled by the notion that a story isn’t worth hearing if it isn’t the single most pivotal event in world history. (This may be why I tire so quickly of many other fantasy epics.)

Maybe it’s connected to the fact I play games like a tourist—I’m happy just to get off the beaten path and take in the sights sometimes. I like seeing my Middle-earth adventure glance against the scenes and characters of the novels, sure, but I’m also happy to explore the forgotten city and the remote barrow. I don’t need to meet Han Solo or serve on the Enterprise for the journey to feel worthwhile.

What about you?


  1. Lowell Francis
    November 10, 2011

    I have a hard time picturing the rpg players I know ever taking that second position. It may be that the question of playing in a licensed setting at all weeds out people who would need to interact with the “real story” or play with the main characters. That those familiar characters might pop up as a reference they’d find engaging- but too much they’d likely see as fan-service. Most of the group’s I’ve played with have been looking for a ‘tour’ of an established setting through tabletop play. They want and need to room to forge their own stories and directions. It’s why I can’t imagine running a game (Star Wars, LotR, Buffy) with players playing Luke, Aragorn or Willow. But I think that’s a slightly different question from the one of needing to be part of the epic- players make their own epic, even in the universe where those benchmarks seem to have been established elsewhere.

  2. Will Hindmarch
    November 10, 2011

    Right on, Lowell. I mean, by many accounts, the story of War in the North aims to be an epic in its own right, for example—so I’m probably tangling two ideas there. Players do make their own epics.

    Still, I think there’s a curious and remarkable distinction between the players that embrace a world and the players who embrace that’s world’s “main story.” Some worlds are built to tell a single story really well, of course, and yet may still be worth retelling or exploring side stories. What do I know? 🙂

  3. Adam
    November 10, 2011

    Interesting timing for this question, since I picked up my copy of Cubicle 7’s new One Ring tabletop rpg earlier this week, and the number one question my potential players have asked is “so, do you just follow the Fellowship around or what?” Thankfully, when I tell them that you play in the North, and just after the death of Smaug, my players’ eyes light up, because they, like me, love flat-out destroying canonical settings.

    We once played a Star Wars d20 game, for about a year, wherein we brought our own spin to the “inter-trilogy” period, and where nary a Skywalker intruded (except the time my Jedi character duelled Vader in a desperate attempt to buy time for the rest of

  4. Adam
    November 10, 2011

    …the group to escape.

  5. Lowell Francis
    November 10, 2011

    Adam- I think the different approaches of LotR rpgs illustrates that division in thinking. The One Ring and the Lord of the Rings RPG both focus on getting players close to the action of the books and movies, even playing those characters. On the other hand, MERP focused on providing a historical tour of the Middle earth setting. The primary timeframe for that material was well before the books and seem to take for granted that players wouldn’t want to play in stories so explicitly told, but would want to see the world and forge their own little slice of it.

    It might be tangential to the original question, but I wonder if some of the negative reaction to the meta-plots in older White Wolf products came from something like this? I know some people didn’t like the idea that the world changed without their participation in the crucial moments of that change. Perhaps the feeling that they were NPCs in someone else’s game. Having scripted events which later books refer to doesn’t impose that metaplot, but it does make things more difficult to use as the line evolves.

    Some things like Adventure! and Aberrant had what seemed to be a preset history which didn’t allow much room for the players. Contrast that with something like the recent Kerberos Club which has a closed timeline and set history, but avoids fixed specific results and names involved (for the most part) so that the Gm can fit players into those stories.

    So I’ve swung pretty far from the original point. My rpg players don’t really care about being fixed to the “main story.” They’d like to have a chance to explore and kick around these settings- to find their own niche. I don’t think anyone’s ever really worried about “what do we do?” in that case. But I suspect those same players, in another medium, do want to be at the center- in video games or board games. I know they enjoy those kinds of games and feel a little cheated when other characters reduce their importance or role, or when they lose agency (as in some of the FF games).

  6. Adam
    November 10, 2011

    Lowell, I would disagree with the One Ring encouraging players to play the characters in the books and movies. It is certainly open to that kind of play, but I don’t get the vibe that it encourages what I call “backup Fellowship” play at all (though I’ve not finished reading it yet, so I stand to be corrected).

    My players, like yours, prefer to not follow the “official” story, and where we do interact with it, we prefer to alter events to make it sure that the canon simply cannot occur.

  7. Brand Robins
    November 10, 2011

    I’ve had quite a few discussions about this in the past, but not about Middle Earth. For me it’s always been Pendragon that’s brought this out. In Pendragon you’re in Arthur’s Britain, but you’re not a Round Table Knight (at least not unless you earn it, and it doesn’t happen in play as often as you’d think), you’re not Lance or Gawain or Arthur, and you’re unlikely to be able to do much to change their stories.

    For folks for whom the point was “Mordred and Arthur fight, Camelot falls” there was never a satisfaction with the game. We weren’t doing what it was about, to them.

    OTOH, for folks who wanted to live in Arthur’s Britain, to see it and be there as people in a world full of stories in which no one person’s thing was “the point”, the game went beautifully.

  8. John Arcadian
    November 10, 2011

    Whenever I’m playing in a licensed setting, I generally prefer to not play the big main plot. If the world is engaging enough, I want my character to make his or her own way and have their own impact, especially when it comes to tabletop. A brief cameo by the main characters isn’t bad, but it isn’t what I came to the table to play. I also tend to enjoy rewritings of the main plot. In one Serenity game I ran, the group were mercenaries that were tasked with (and succeeded at) collecting a bounty on the heads of the Sernity’s crew. One of the beauties of tabletop gaming is that you aren’t locked into a certain preset path, so if you are playing in a setting where the BIG story already exists and has a predetermined ending, then it feels like the element of choice is lacking.

  9. Lowell Francis
    November 10, 2011

    Adam- thanks for the heads up on The One Ring’s approach. I’d based my assumptions on some of the preview comments from the developers and a couple of overviews. It sounded fairly tied to the core story, but I’m glad to hear the approach is wider than that.

  10. Review the Game You Got | gameplaywright
    November 29, 2011

    […] I’m singling out War in the North again because of Game Informer‘s review of it, in which Joe Juba writes: The conceptual framework […]


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