Roleplay as a Tolkien scholar

The most immersive RPG

meta settings rpg

I grew up with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings as bedtime stories. Those books have been part of my life literally for as long as I can remember. There is no beginning, they were just always there. When I got out into the real world, I was surprised to learn that there were people who knew way more about Middle Earth than I did. Recently I've started playing Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game on the tabletop, and it occurred to me that being a Tolkien fan is actually an immersive RPG in which you play a scholar uncovering the secrets of a fantasy world. Here's what I mean.

Unfinished work

I used to think incorrectly that Tolkien had written four books: The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I [incorrectly] figured that the other stuff released after his death was probably a cash grab, and that rabid fans had managed to over-analyze it all until there was so much content about what could have been that it seemed like there was more to Middle Earth than what Tolkien actually produced. I was wrong, but that's the assumption I had starting out. I resisted delving further into Tolkien's work because frankly his writing style isn't particularly dynamic, and as far as I understood, much of it was posthumous anyway, so I considered it basically non-canon.

I recently read The Letters of JRR Tolkien (not the expanded edition, yet) and boy did it set me straight.

I'm not coming to any new conclusions, here. It's spelled out in his letters. But it's new to me, so I'm sharing it. Tolkien didn't write just four books. He published four books, and frankly they were an ancillary project to his true life work of roleplaying as a historian for a make-believe world.

When people wrote to Tolkien to ask him about some minor detail of Middle Earth, he didn't just make stuff up. He'd already made the stuff up, and he was able to draw from his knowledge of his imaginary setting to provide 100% consistent answers The genealogies and histories of people and places and things remain constant. He knew the travel times between key locations, he knew the phases of the moon during specific events in the books. For him, Middle Earth was real. Not really real, but "real."

I think on some level, Tolkien did want to write more books. That was definitely his intent, that's clear from his correspondence with his publishers. But I think he was compelled to just write history and lots of letters. I think deep down, he didn't feel the need to be a novelist. On a lazy afternoon with nothing better to do, I doubt Tolkien sat down to work on a novel. If anything, I'd bet he worked on something that today we call worldbuilding.

At the time, though, there was kind of no other option than being a novelist for somebody who wanted to tell a fantastic story. There was no concept of worldbuilding, back then. A lot of people today aren't aware of the concept. I read a lot of lore, and some of my friends are not just a little confused about why I spend so much time learning about imaginary places instead of just, you know, reading a history book about Ancient Rome or Egypt or whatever. (That's another blog post all its own.)

There was literally no other format to convey his ideas, at the time. There wasn't a market for history books about a world that didn't exist. It's still a niche market today, but it wasn't something people could even conceptualize then. When Tolkien started his project, the term "fantasy" as a literary genre didn't even exist yet. He called his work "faery stories" for lack of a better term.

Tolkien died before the 1980s, so when he invented an imaginary world and obsessed over it down to the last detail, he had two choices at best: novels or serialized magazines. In the 1980s, of course, tabletop roleplaying games took off and suddenly there was a new medium: the RPG source book. There was, all of a sudden, a completely new market for fantastic fiction, whether it was [what had become known as] "fantasy" or "sci fi" or, more broadly, "speculative fiction."

Rulebooks and source books and bestiaries

Looking at Tolkien's body of work can be intimidating for a few reasons. First, there's a lot of it. Second, he never had reason to collate it all into a coherent masterwork. Third, the attempts he made to express it through novels, outside of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and a few short stories published during his lifetime, were left unfinished. Where do you start?

Well one way is to view it as a roleplaying game. Your Game Master, JRR Tolkien himself, has created a setting, and I'm not talking about Middle Earth. The setting of the Tolkien Legendarium is the real world, and you're the player character. You gain experience points by gathering data about an ancient world. You've heard it referenced as "Middle Earth." You probably don't know the name of the continent or the planet. Maybe that's the first clue you need to find? Or maybe it's irrelevant and what you really need to know is how it started, what entity created it. Or maybe that doesn't matter, and all you really care about are who populated the world.

It doesn't matter where you start, and realistically most of us start with The Hobbit and then Lord of the Rings, but to get past level 4 (assuming one book is one level) you have to look around. That's the game. It's an escape room. Find the clues, earn the loremaster achievement.


Back in film school, my professors used to say "I can't grade what's not on screen." It was a rule that was intended to forestall the hapless student who shot hours and hours of really great footage, except a lighting stand was in the shot, so they had to leave it all on the cutting room floor. That footage doesn't count. You're not graded on intent, you're graded on results.

I used to unjustly apply that rule to Tolkien. I looked at his body of work and saw a bunch of pages left on the cutting room floor. That was the wrong way to look at it. All that "unfinished" work is the work. It's not unfinished because when is anything truly finished, any way? What official stamp do you get to signify that a project is complete? Tolkien didn't feel like he needed one. He kept working on his world, in one form or another, until his death.

Playing the roleplaying game of Tolkien's work means you get to read his "source books", cobble together his clues, correlate the timelines, maybe even learn a new language. At one time, that seemed like a lot of work to me. It felt like people were picking up the pieces of an author who didn't bother writing into his books the story he wanted to tell. But actually the author told his stories. If Tolkien were alive today, he'd be the guy on the Internet running his own wiki site for his fictional setting. He'd be an RPG developer, writing source books, and a fair few splat books, for his very own low-magic setting. I guess I'd have been one of the suckers to miss out on his Kickstarter, because I didn't understand. There is no game, there is only lore.

In reality, Tolkien was a clever guy at a writing desk. He corresponded with people far and wide about that imaginary world over the medium of hand-written letters (typed, later in life when his right arm gave him trouble). And he kept the receipts, he wrote stuff down, he kept up his portfolio. It wasn't all done in a format that would make sense as a published volume, maybe, but the work exists. The roleplaying game is the discovery of the lore. It's uncovering all the secrets hidden both in plain site and in works rescued from his study posthumously.

At the end, you don't necessarily get to call yourself a Tolkien scholar, but you're at least an RPG nerd playing a game that's so meta that it's both real-life research and the same refreshing "waste of time" as memorizing the stat blocks of your favourite Pathfinder dragons. In the game, you are your character, and you're studying the archives of Middle Earth, as passed down from ancient antiquarians, Bilbo Baggins himself included. Parse it, collate it, and you emerge with an understanding of a place that never existed, but that's a lot of fun to hang out in.

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