Sunday, June 24, 2012

Lorien & the Halls of the Elven Smiths - a rambling review and meditation

I've decided to loosen up on these reviews/overviews of old roleplaying game supplements, and try to put them into some kind of context besides gaming. 

Lorien & the Halls of the Elven Smiths is a sourcebook for Iron Crown Enterprise(ICE)'s Middle-earth Roleplaying (MERP) game. It's only 64 pages long, which seems to me to be thin for such a subject, but ICE crammed a lot of content into these books, especially when they decreased font size for the descriptions of locations.

Lorien is one of those locations often covered in roleplaying games that make me wonder exactly what the designers intended it to be used for. This isn't a set-up for a criticism. I'm genuinely curious. I was looking at this book, and others like Minas Tirith, and it struck me that they don't hold a lot of potential for traditional RPG adventuring. When I say "traditional RPG adventuring," I mean the classic D&D dungeoncrawl. Sure, there was also a lot of social interaction between the player characters and their environment, even in the most basic D&D adventure predicated on beating up monsters and taking their stuff. This usually manifested in exchanging crude threats with evil wizards that were about to be handed their doom, haggling with merchants while trying to sell all the ripped-up chainmail and machetes stripped off that orc platoon they just clobbered, or trying to get a bar fight started while the characters were indulging in ale and whores. Of course, none of those last two things were ever described too graphically; it was mostly just an assumption they were involved as the players had their characters trash yet another incarnation of the Prancing Pony. So, I never had that much familiarity with roleplaying game sessions that involved much in the way of social niceties. Lorien doesn't fit the classic old school paradigm I'm familiar with too well.

I've had this sourcebook for well over 25 years now, and bits and pieces of it filtered into games I ran, though often obliquely. That is, the player characters may have passed through an elven kingdom on their way to kick some orc ass, and the descriptions and some characters from Lorien made their way into the game, but never as the basis of anything close to an adventure. I never played or ran a game where the player characters were evil, so the chance for armed conflict was never there for a place like Lorien. Thus, with no doors to kick down and inhabitants to put to the sword, the players I gamed with - and I, too, I won't exempt myself here - had no real use for hanging out there for any length of time.

That was then. Now, being old and decrepit, I find the notion of such a game, or at least a session or three of it, appealing. I think if I'd tried running a game like that back in the day, it could have been really memorable. There's a lot of potential for both the characters and their players to become invested in the world of the game, and weave themselves into the narrative of the campaign setting. Take Lorien specifically, and the role it played in The Lord of the Rings. I'm going to concentrate on the book rather than the movie, though a lot of this discussion (one-side though it may be) can apply to either.

Lorien was a pivotal place for the Fellowship. After their disastrous foray into Moria, it gave them a place to rest and regroup, beyond the sight of their enemies. Beyond that very basic (and very old school gaming) use for the place, it was also an emotional pivot point. The ties between the members of the Fellowship were deepened; this is no small thing, narratively speaking, given the further disasters to hit the group later in the story. It strengthened the bond between the peoples of Middle-earth; the hobbits gained even more exposure for their people and knowledge of the world beyond their Shire. But that had already been done in Rivendell. What hadn't been done before was for the rift between elves and dwarves to begin to be closed, with Gimli's startling infatuation with Galadriel. The beginnings of an understanding sprang up, with the realization that both races shared an appreciation for beauty, though expressed in different ways, and sometimes in different forms. In many ways, the stopover in Lorien helped forge the future of Middle-earth.

So how does this translate over into a game? That depends on what you want out of the game. If you're more inclined to a classic-D&D paradigm, then spending much time in Lorien may motivate nothing beyond eyerolls and boredom. I get that. Hell, I played that for years. But if the players want to make an impact on the world their characters live in, in a larger, perhaps more far-reaching way, the chapters of The Lord of the Rings set in Lorien are a good example of how this can be done.
The heart of Lorien.

A lot of that may seem old hat to many gamers. The internet has let me discover that there has always been a vast spectrum of ways that roleplaying games were played. For that matter, there is a vast spectrum of ways just D&D itself is played.* Indulge a cranky old grognard like me as he rediscovers fire. I know there were groups out there who were doing this long before I even picked up a D&D book, circa 1979. I know that, yet I still find myself surprised when I run across evidence of games that were really heavily roleplay-intensive at the same time my gaming groups were applying subtle negotiating tactics like kicking down doors and slapping around town guards. That's why I can now look at Lorien & the Halls of the Elven Smiths and see it with new eyes, and recognize the missed opportunities.
Once a thriving hub of Elven civilization, Eregion had become an empty land by the time the Fellowship passed through it. Ost-in-Edhil is at the southern edge of the map.

All that pontificating aside, there isn't a lot of roleplaying-intensive material in this book. There are some character sketches and notes on the elves and their history, but the bulk of the book is made up of more objective material, like timelines, climate charts, rundowns of the flora and fauna of the region, and, of course, lists and charts of game statistics for characters, creatures, and details of "military" units. There isn't anything much in the way of nuanced character studies and detailed cultural essays. That's fine for someone like me, who never liked too much of that kind of stuff in the first place (just give me the basics and let me fill in the details), and who has also read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion multiple times. For others, though, this is a shortcoming of the book.

Lorien & the Halls of the Elven Smiths covers a lot of territory and history in its 64 pages. Beyond the elven forest itself, which is memorable to fans of both book and movies, this sourcebook also covers Ost-in-Edhil, a great elven city that was the center of an elven nation long since destroyed by Sauron and his forces by the time of The Lord of the Rings. It was on the other side of the Misty Mountains from Lorien, and really rates a sourcebook all its own simply due to the sheer potential shown by its history, but it makes a kind of sense to lump it in with Lorien. The big reason for this is that Galadriel and Celeborn once ruled over all the elves in the region, from Lorien into Eregion, though it changed hands multiple times, including Lorien once being ruled by another elven couple.

Maybe it's just me, but they look like they were in the middle of an argument when they had to pose for this picture.
This book is a good illustration of just how vast and meticulously-drawn Middle-earth is. It does so by trying to tie together several thousand years of history and vast swathes of territory. It may not succeed completely - by necessity, a 64-page book just can't adequately cover five or six thousand years of history - but it creates a thumbnail sketch with which a person could use it to provide the framework for a more detailed game experience. Tolkien's historical creation is so consistent and well-put-together that even a cursory overview like this book can easily provide the reader with a good, basic understanding of its subject.

Lorien is the classic example, and basic prototype, of the "elven wood" that has become by now a cliche in modern fantasy. Time passes differently within its borders than it does in the lands of mortals. It is the haven for some of the last of the most powerful elves left in the world. It also is a haven for such things as plants the elves love, such as the enormous mallorn trees they build houses in. Tolkien drew on myth and legend for the properties of his elven forest, but he refined the concept and made it his own. It's hard to find a similar setting in a modern fantasy story that doesn't bear at least a little resemblance to Lorien.

Some of this may be a result of the Elven Ring Galadriel wears, and that ring is detailed in game terms where it is, indeed, the basis of a lot of Lorien's nature, though the fact that it is wielded by someone like Galadriel almost certainly amplifies that power and draws on the nature of wielder, or reinforces and helps strengthen that nature. The game designers who worked on MERP did a decent job of trying to model the powers of the Rings in game terms, though Tolkien's original description of them is vague.

I'd like to note the artwork of Liz Danforth in this book. The cover is by the inimitable Angus McBride, but Danforth dominates the interior. Her art showed up quite often in the MERP line, as well as in a number of other roleplaying games. It has an elegant, sleek, and often ethereal look to it that really suits Tolkien's elves. It doesn't work as well with gritty subject matter, like orcs and trolls - though there are exceptions - but Danforth is in her element with magic-infused, immortal, and inhumanly beautiful subjects, including evil ones. She still works today, and has a distinct, memorable style.

Speaking of art, the designers of this book took an interesting concept and used it as the basis for elven architecture. They ran with the "Three Rings" concept, making a lot of the structures built by the Ost-in-Edhil elves be based on triangles:

The idea never quite jibed with how I pictured elven architecture, but the more I look at it now, the more I like it. I may well use it for the next game I run...if I ever get to run one. Anyway, someone at ICE must have been a bit of an architecture buff, because some of the illustrations of elven buildings bear more than a passing resemblance to something that might have been built by Frank Lloyd Wright.
I think not.
Dragging out and looking at all these old game books transports me back in time.  It was a time that was pre-internet, when it was tough to tell what games were being played and by whom and where. I rarely ran across anyone who played anything other than D&D. The only gamers I knew of who played even a little MERP were my own group. D&D has survived in one form or another for decades, and a vigorous community exists now for each edition and version of the game produced. I wonder about games like MERP; there were a couple of versions of it, and quite a number of supplements for it were published over the course of something like 15+ years. I wonder if there are any groups out there still playing it on a regular basis? I occasionally see someone post online about their D&D group celebrating 20, 25, even 30+ years of gaming together, which is mind-boggling to me. I wonder if there is some last, lonely group still getting together and playing MERP on a weekly, monthly, or even yearly basis? I like to think there is such a group, or several of them. I like to think the same is true for even more obscure games, like Aftermath! or Lords of Creation or Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes. A few dwindling groups, holding out against the coming of oblivion...much like Tolkien's elves.

*I keep mentioning D&D despite this being a review (such as it is) of a non-D&D game book. That's because D&D was my primary game, and I looked at everything as potential fodder for it.

1 comment:

  1. I've often thought a show or movie about the very thing you describe at the end, here, could be a success. I even tried to write it once. I keep meaning to try again but at this point, I guess I'm not getting round to it. Someone should, though, as I'd like to see it.

    There definitely seems to be a FLW flair to Rivendell's architecture.

    I'd love a look at the stats for Galadriel's ring. Any of the rings of power, actually. Like you say, Tolkien's description of them is vague. In D&D terms, is it the sort of thing where a 36th level magic user can do significant damage with it but a 4th level cleric can turn invisible or something similar?