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Old 11-02-2023, 06:44 PM   #1
xerxes
 
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Default Tolkien magic and game applications

Consider Tolkien's middle-earth. What forms of supernatural power are portrayed in his writing? What is going on? How does it work? What is the "true nature" of it?

Now that you have developed a comprehensive conceptual framework, how do you manifest all of that in an RPG that stays true to his writing?

If you would use an existing game system then, OK , how would you do it? If you are going to invent out of whole-cloth then what would it be?

Let's assume that I want do a campaign set a few hundred years into the 4th age if that makes a difference.
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Old 11-02-2023, 06:53 PM   #2
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I used the second edition of Big Eyes Small Mouth when I wanted to run a campaign set in Middle-Earth. It looks like I still have the protocols for that campaign, including the magic rules and racial templates. If you'd like a look, private message me with your e-mail and I'll send you a copy.

Basically I used Magic for what a few player characters could do, I limited Dynamic Sorcery to powerful beings such as Tom Bombadil, and I made up a new trait, Maker, for characters who could make works of craft with magical power but not cast spells. The animistic flavor of the Japanese supernatural material was a surprisingly good fit to Tolkien's world.
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Old 11-02-2023, 11:13 PM   #3
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Default Re: Tolkien magic and game applications

The thing about Tolkien's Legendarium that a lot of people miss (that is important in this context) is that it's not a low-power setting. It's what someone on another forum called a 'high subtlety' setting: Powerful magic that is obvious is rare because it sends a signal up to any other power, while powerful magic that is subtle probably doesn't (or not as 'loudly'), but is also less noticeable to the readers. In a game, subtle-but-powerful magic is more noticeable to the players, since they have to roll for or against it, and depending on the character they're playing, may have skills for it, or be able to sense it.
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Old 11-03-2023, 04:34 AM   #4
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The thing about Tolkien's Legendarium that a lot of people miss (that is important in this context) is that it's not a low-power setting. It's what someone on another forum called a 'high subtlety' setting: Powerful magic that is obvious is rare because it sends a signal up to any other power, while powerful magic that is subtle probably doesn't (or not as 'loudly'), but is also less noticeable to the readers. In a game, subtle-but-powerful magic is more noticeable to the players, since they have to roll for or against it, and depending on the character they're playing, may have skills for it, or be able to sense it.
The other, obvious thing about magic in that setting is that it's ... potentially rude. That is, that doing too much by magic essentially involves second guessing the way that Eru created the world. That, of course, was Morgoth's shctick, but is a massive issue for those in service to Eru.
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Old 11-03-2023, 06:39 AM   #5
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I would note Galadriel's comment to Frodo that the word "magic" seems to apply both to what the elves do and to "the deceits of the Enemy," which in her view are entirely different things. I tend to think of this as akin to the difference between magia and goetia, or "Truth" and "the Lie."
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Old 11-03-2023, 07:11 AM   #6
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I would note Galadriel's comment to Frodo that the word "magic" seems to apply both to what the elves do and to "the deceits of the Enemy," which in her view are entirely different things. I tend to think of this as akin to the difference between magia and goetia, or "Truth" and "the Lie."
I suppose the elven way is having a really good understanding of the way things are meant to be and so creating things that are close to perfect, and the Istari bend reality with permission under authority, whilst Morgoth's people actively hack reality.
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Old 11-03-2023, 08:14 AM   #7
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I suppose the elven way is having a really good understanding of the way things are meant to be and so creating things that are close to perfect, and the Istari bend reality with permission under authority, whilst Morgoth's people actively hack reality.
Yeah, that tracks. Both elven and dwarven craft magic indeed seems to be about "perfection" in some way. Cloaks that blend in almost perfectly with the environment. Waybread that provides perfect nourishment and stays fresh and tasty. Ropes that remain perfectly tied but untie themselves at the will of the user. Blades that remain perfectly sharp. Clever mechanisms that continue to function perfectly even without maintenance (like the hidden doorway into the Lonely Mountain). And so forth. Some of the blades glowing in the presence of orcs and goblins (Glamdring, Orcrist, and the unnamed dagger later known as Sting, for example) isn't quite as subtle, but then blades are often poetically referred to as "gleaming," and against a foe who revels in darkness such a feature is ideal for combating them (hard to sneak up on someone when they have a visible alarm that goes off in your presence, and having a light source means their sensory disadvantage of lacking the ability to see in the dark is negated), so arguably still fits (it's basically the normal gleaming attribute turned up to 11 such that it can somehow catch light and gleam even in darkness).
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Old 11-03-2023, 09:12 AM   #8
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I suppose the elven way is having a really good understanding of the way things are meant to be and so creating things that are close to perfect, and the Istari bend reality with permission under authority, whilst Morgoth's people actively hack reality.
We are told, for example, that Morgoth made counterfeit elves (the orcs) and ents (the trolls). But he couldn't truly create, so they were flawed in important ways.

There is also the thing Shippey points out, where the Enemy (both of them) has powers that relate to treating nonexistence/nothing as if it were an active force, as if Evil could be a power like Good instead of a falling short. See for example the ringwraiths, who are more or less empty robes that give shape to an inner nothingness. Or Ungoliant with her darkness powers. That's the sort of thing I was getting at with Void powers in GURPS Powers: The Weird.
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Old 11-03-2023, 12:53 PM   #9
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Consider Tolkien's middle-earth. What forms of supernatural power are portrayed in his writing? What is going on? How does it work? What is the "true nature" of it?
At its most basic, there are two kinds of magic in Middle-earth: Art and Domination.

Art is the use of will or skill to glorify God's (Ilúvatar or Eru) creation. When a musician makes such beautiful music that you're carried away by it, that's Art. Elves are so good at this sort of thing that they can perform feats that others think of as "magic": for instance, they can sing with such artistry that the listener actually beholds a vision of the song before them.

One sub-type of Art is Wizardry. Although this is named in terms of the Istari, in general this is the application of will to get the natural world to do the things that the natural world wants to do. Gandalf thrusts his staff at a log and commands it: the command is a request for the wood to combust, a thing that wood naturally does. Gandalf just gets it to do it without an ingition. Lúthien sings and makes her hair grow long, which is a thing that hair does, though not usually so quickly. Others call this "magic" because they haven't got the will or knowledge to ask things to do this.

Domination is the use of will to make things do what they aren't inclined to do. It's typically called "sorcery." While one can use one's own will if one is strong enough, it's common to make use of the "Morgoth-element" that Morgoth infused in all of Middle-earth specifically so he could dominate it. The magic of the Rings of Power is all about domination (even the Three Rings: they were designed to preserve Middle-earth against its natural decline). Sorcery will let you command others to do your will, and this is, in fact, its most common use. It will let you bind spirits to places and bodies, like Barrow-wights and Ringwraiths and possibly dragons and wargs.

Sometimes it's hard to identify the source of a given magical effect. The curse of Isildur is basically a subtype of Art, in that the men of Dunharrow swore oaths of alliegence to him, and it is thus natural that their breaking of those oaths gives him the right to punish them. Isildur, strong of will, is capable of this. It's like Wizardry in this way, only instead of getting natural objects to do what they are inclined to do, you're willing consequences to a broken oath. This isn't sorcery because you're not dominating people against their wills, you're imposing a just punishment on what they chose to do.

But the Curse of Morgoth on Húrin is domination. Húrin's family did nothing to deserve punishment; Morgoth is manipulating fate for his own ends, and forcing Húrin to watch.

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Now that you have developed a comprehensive conceptual framework, how do you manifest all of that in an RPG that stays true to his writing?
There are lots of ways. In GURPS, it could be as simple as interpreting extremely high skill levels as Art, and not noticing the difference between regular skills and "magical skills" (i.e., spells, and only allow thematically correct spells). Two kinds of Magery interacts with two kinds of mana. Or you could let players just pick appropriate advantages that feel like they belong, and give each a distinct modifier. Some games just say "this is wizardry and this is sorcery," and each spell of sorcery leads to toward corruption.

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Let's assume that I want do a campaign set a few hundred years into the 4th age if that makes a difference.
A few hundred years into the Fourth Age, the Reuinted Kingdom has eliminated most of the fantastic threats to Middle-earth. Most of the elves have gone. The dwarves and hobbits are doing well, though the hobbits never become cosmopolitan. The Kingdom has pretty much eliminated all the problems in the northwest of Middle-earth, and subdued military threats to the east and south. There are no more great dragons. The Rings of Power are gone, and Middle-earth is in full decline.

It's not a great time to set adventures in, unless they're very mundane or you change Tolkien's conception of it. The fantasy is leaving the world.
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Old 11-05-2023, 09:37 PM   #10
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Default Re: Tolkien magic and game applications

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The other, obvious thing about magic in that setting is that it's ... potentially rude. That is, that doing too much by magic essentially involves second guessing the way that Eru created the world. That, of course, was Morgoth's shctick, but is a massive issue for those in service to Eru.
This has various dimensions.

For ex, one very real factor in using magic in Tolkien's world is the Law of Unintended Consequences. That applies in Tolkien's world just as much as it does today, and it applies even to the Valar themselves. This makes the people who do have a lot of 'magical' power hesitant to exercise it, because they can't predict all the outcomes. The more Power you use, the easier it is to screw up.

(This is part of why the Istari operate under such tight restrictions.)

Also, for those loyal to God's plan, it's critical not to infringe needlessly on the free will and free choices of others. This is so important that some of the Elves in the Third Age are reluctant even to give asked advice for fear of improperly shaping someone else's choices.

Along with that is the fact that the Valar are gradually withdrawing from mortal affairs as the Domination of Men approaches, and the older, more powerful High Elves are leaving Middle Earth for Valinor. Mortals have very limited access to 'magic' as such, and we don't live long enough to learn to do the sort of things the High Elves knew how to do.

So the Power is becoming less and less of a factor in life as time passes.
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