Magic in Middle Earth

Thoughts about magic

gaming wargame

Although one of the most famous characters in Lord of the Rings is a wizard, I think many people consider Tolkien's setting to be "low magic". It's a matter of comparison, but in RPG settings like Pathfinder's Golarion or Frog God's Lost Lands, powerful violations of the law of physics can be purchased in shops and learned in magic academies. I never gave the magic of Tolkien's setting much thought, but the Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game made me reconsider Middle Earth's magic system.

A quick disclaimer: I'm no expert on Tolkien's lore. Growing up, my family read the core books together every four years or so. At the time of writing this, I've not read the Silmarillion or all the letters Tolkien wrote about his writing (although I've read some, and I've got the Silmarillion on my list). For now, I'm thinking of magic just as a bloke who's read the books and saw the movies.

Natural magic

The most obvious thing about Middle Earth's magic is that there's more to magic than the cantrips wizards cast. Maybe there's less glitter, but there's still a lot of wispy mist. The very premise of the story is that there's a magical ring that not only turns its wearer invisible, but through which its original manufacturer influences its wearer. Maybe it's because of how early in life I was introduced to The Hobbit but for whatever reason, the Ring never seemed like magic to me. It was just always part of the story and part of the world.

There's a lot of subtle magic in Mddle Earth, as it turns out. Swords glow when enemies are near. Certain elves have foresight, others can scry. Trolls and goblins exist. Even as I list them here, it feels a little boring and mundane. That's not because it is mundane, though. It's because the fantastical elements of Tolkien's setting has become our bare minimum definition of fantasy. You can heap as much Greater Polymorph and Chill Touch and Dragonlances as you want to come up with something that feels even more magical, but underneath there's a foundation of incidentally magical fantasy.

But I'm not playing the it-was-groundbreaking-at-the-time card. Instead, I'm noticing that the magic of Middle Earth is integrated into the setting. The fantasy parts of Middle Earth don't seem like fantasy to its inhabitants because it's the folklore of the people inhabiting the world. If I encountered an actual pixie or fairy, for example, I'd be surprised but I'd have context for what I was seeing. My mind wouldn't go into crisis, I'd just decide that all the legends were true, after all. I think the same is true for Middle Earth. Probably most hobbits have never seen and will never see a troll, but when Bilbo tells his story about trolls, nobody is likely to think of it as magic. It's just part of the world, a rare fulfillment of the fantastic.

Seeing magic in Middle Earth

Even after seeing the subtle magic of Middle Earth that I'd previously taken for granted, I expected the section on magic spells in the Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game rulebook to be sparse. I can list spells in RPGs like Pathfinder or Tales of the Valiant for days. Blink, Burning Hands, Charm Person, Color Spray, Detect Magic, Feather Fall, Fireball, Magic Missile, Ray of Frost, Knock, Levitate, Locate Object, Mirror Image, and the list goes on and on and on. Out of all those spells, naming aside, I can only think of a few that appear in Tolkien's books. Middle Earth was a magical place, and it had wizards, but they didn't often cast spells.


The MESBG rulebook presents an alternate hypothesis. The magic in a fantasy RPG derived from D&D uses a specific magic system inspired by Jack Vance's books like Dying Earth. When you use it, you lose it, so spellcasting is a big deal. Furthermore for the sake of game design, the magic strictly requires verbal, somatic, and material components. When someone casts a spell, they wave their hands around and burn incense and say magic words. Tolkien's world isn't built around those concepts.

What if the wizards in Tolkien did cast spells, and frequently, only they didn't wink and poke an elbow in your rib every time they did it? A wizard might cast a spell without you ever knowing it. There might be effects from magic items you're not even aware of.

With that as a possiblity, you might see The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings from a new perspective.

Something seemingly mundane happens at just the right moment. A surefire action taken by your enemy somehow, impossibly, fails miserably. The weather plays up in your favour. Despite facing threats beyond your worst nightmares, you don't run away, but stand firm. Things happen, and they all have a perfectly sensible explanation, even if it's just probability and fate. And yet they seem to occur a lot more often when that wizard happens to be around.

Accordingly, there are lots of spells in the MESBG rulebook. Many of them wouldn't look like magic in the game world, they'd just be the hand of chance.

  • Bladewrath: All strikes resolve with Strength 6 (This generally means greater damage.)
  • Collapse Rocks: Cause rocks or bricks from a nearby building to fall on your enemy (How convenient! those rocks just happened to fall on your enemy!)
  • Enchanted Blades: Target may re-roll failed To Wound rolls (This increases the chance to hit an enemy.)
  • Fortify Spirit: Target rolls two extra dice when taking a Resist test (Something or someone has inspired you to uncanny fortitude.)

The list goes on, many with names you can imagine as either a spell or just a social talent, like Instill Fear, Enrage Beast, Drain Courage, Panic Steed, Sap Will, Fury, Refreshing Song, Strengthen Will, Terrifying Aura. These are the kinds of "spells" you can imagine real life witch hunters back in the 15th century accusing people of casting. You could call them mind games, social engineering, manipulation. Or you could say it was "magic".

There are some properly magic-feeling spells, too. A few examples:

  • Wrath of Bruinen: knocks all enemies to the ground
  • Sorcerous Blast: target is pushed backwards from its current position
  • Shatter: cause an enemy's weapon to shatter
  • Paralyze: cause an enemy to be paralyzed
  • Flameburst: cause an enemy to burst into flames

The most magic-y of the ones I've listed her is probably Flameburst, which explicitly says that you throw fire from the palm of your hand. Everything else involves unseen forces and conjuration, and could feasibly be explained away by fortuitously timed forces of nature. We're not talking about bolts of glowing purple plasma energy, it's "just" fire. It could be that the "wizard" has invented the butane lighter and has cleverly combined it with a jar of common moonshine.

Powerful magic

The stealthy nature of magical powers in MESBG makes them seem, in a way, more powerful than the big flashy spells I'm used to in gaming. I find myself re-framing many parts of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, now that I see where the magic might be hidden away. Maybe it was careless reading, but I genuinely thought Gandalf basically had one or two fire tricks, and a bunch of powerful friends.

I obviously failed to read between the lines. I argue it's easy to do when you stop analyzing a story at the age 8, because it's that ingrained in your everyday life. It's been an unexpected side effect of the Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game that I'm thinking about Tolkien's books more critically than ever before, and I'm glad for it.

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