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3/17/2011

A TSR Middle-Earth: The Hobbit as Campaign Report

I've consistently downplayed the influence of Tolkien on D&D for a long time now. 

Sure, there are plenty of examples of Tolkienisms that have been with the game since the beginning, but I'd always dismissed D&D's debt to the world of Middle-Earth as "borrowed trimmin's" that could be totally removed from the campaign without disruption to the underlying system.

And that still rings pretty true. But here's the thing: I listened to The Hobbit last week while driving back and forth to work. I can't really recall the last time I read the tale of Bilbo and his journey to the Lonely Mountain (and back again), but I'd guesstimate that it's been a good five years at the very least. All that was left in my memory were some foggy notions about the plot and some very clear ideas about its connection to the saga unveiled in The Lord of the Rings. So getting a chance to hear the story again was like a really fun refresher course with old Prof Tolkien.

Back when pipe-weed was called tobacco.

Some things that really jumped out:
  • Spareness of the Setting and Background. When JRRT wrote this one, he hadn't yet folded the story into his ever-growing, unpublished mythology. The tale was a one-off -- a light treatment of the colorful stuff that had been quietly nibbling at his imagination for years. The setting was simple and linear. We heard about the Necromancer and his fastness in southern Mirkwood, and there was a bit about Moria and the lands of Thorin's people, but beyond these morsels our viewpoint was limited to what we could see through Bilbo.
  • A Series of Encounters on the Way to Loot. A party of adventurers crosses a wilderness and comes head-to-head with the local denizens time after time. They're seeking after a treasure. Not because it will save anyone or prevent some horrible catastrophe, but because they want treasure. They've even hired a professional thief. The "ethical" motivation of these characters (to restore the Lonely Mountain to dwarvenkind) seems like a flimsy cover for their basic avarice. We can defend Gandalf and Bilbo, I suppose, but the true movers here are the dwarves -- the adventure is their mission, first and foremost.
  • Adventuring as Business. The fourteen cuts of Smaug's loot, the careful appraisal of treasures, objects and real estate all come to mind here. The Mythic set-up and environment of the story is contrasted with the protagonists' Mundane attitudes towards it all. There's an emphasis on economics that comes through time after time.
  • Anachronisms (For Lack of a Better Word). There's a wonky admixture of technology levels here. The Shire seems an Edwardian township; the rest of the world is ancient/Medieval.
These elements should be familiar to most fans of the work of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. They're what links the world of The Hobbit to Vance's Dying Earth, Fritz Leiber's Nehwon, Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age, etc. In other words, the sword & sorcery tradition. This is the stuff campaigns are made of. 

When Goblins became Orcs.

The Lord of the Rings radically veered away from all of this. The sly tone of The Hobbit is gone. This is a weighty passion play, a meditation on morality and power and responsibility. In other words, total anathema to the brand of bad behavior and wry humor that characterize campaign play. While it's possible to instill a sense of gravitas in a D&D campaign I think it's a very difficult thing to perpetuate. This is not a strike against D&D at all -- it's just that the default mode tends to be light-hearted -- even when the limbs are flying, even when the "heroes" start dropping like flies. It's more Hobbit than Rings.

6 comments:

  1. Agreed. It seems that commentators tend to lump The Hobbit in with the later work when they downplay Tolkien's influence on The Game, but they're quite separate in tone and plot.

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  2. I've been reading the Hobbit to the little ones and have noticed many of the same observations (and have been blogging game related thoughts). It would be neat to have a campaign set in the Wilderlands of the Hobbit without considering the LotR.

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  3. Ever since coming back and re-reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as an adult, I've felt strongly that, as far as Tolkien's influence on D&D goes, it has everything to do with the former and almost nothing to do with the latter.

    In addition to the points you make, there's also Smaug as THE archetypal D&D dragon.

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  4. Risus Monkey: Cubicle 7's upcoming "The One Ring" RPG deals exclusively with the region and character types that appeared in The Hobbit (at least in the initial release). This has, of course, made a lot of people angry, but it sounds like it might be what you're looking for.

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  5. The Middle Earth as presented in The Hobbit is far more interesting to than that presented in LoTR.

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  6. @blizack: I'm very curious about the new Middle-Earth RPG. Ineed a new system like I need a hole in my head, but I'd love a well-done treatment of the Wilderlands of the Hoibbit. I'll almost certainly pick it up.

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