Home » A Tale Never Heard of in Middle-earth – (Sub)creating a story in the well-known setting

A Tale Never Heard of in Middle-earth – (Sub)creating a story in the well-known setting

Sunset over the heather in bloom on the North York Moors National Park, photo by Helen Hotson on Adobe Stock

The Brown Lands were barren and empty, a realm that no lord nor lady thought of claiming as their own. No living soul dwelt among its formless moors, windswept hills and ominous gullies. Or so it was in the time of great events that were passed to us in The Red Book of West March. But these unwelcoming, unclaimed lands were once home to the hardy folk who enjoyed staying outside the affairs of the broader world. It is the story of their vanishing – yet another among Middle-earth’s tales of decline and passing.

And so it began

It was my first session after a long, long break. Besides feeling intimidated by Tolkien’s majestic “asterisk reality”, I had almost no experience being a GM. What finally gave me the spark to rush towards my dream is a tale for another post. In this series, I will describe a bit of my thought process behind devising my own story. Specifically in the world that my players and I knew at least to some degree and loved even more.

Braving the Legendarium

Beginning as a GM in the Middle-earth was a bit daunting. For me, as someone whose literary taste grew up on reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, creating anything beyond the original tales seemed almost disrespectful. On the other hand, Middle-earth has a very unique and captivating tone to it. And I was afraid I wouldn’t meet my own expectations and create something too generic or disconnected from what I love about Tolkien’s masterpieces.

Filling up the corners (of the Middle-earth, while running an RPG)

Following – unconsciously then – the path that the authors of “The One Ring” RPG took, I turned my sight to the region thought by everyone in the world to be desolate for thousands of years. Thus, almost any story could be smoothly introduced without causing the feeling of inconsistency. You’ll find it easier to add a “sidenote” to someone’s work than creating at the core of the original material. But there are also a few things to watch out for in this kind of sub creative work. Just like a hobbit may (rarely) get a bellyache while enjoying their favourite “feeling up the corners”, the final story may not meet the expectations.

Not all meals get well along together

The imaginary worlds that attract us often are very tightly connected to the original stories they were invented for. If you decide to run an RPG in a particular setting, think about what makes you like it in the first place? Perhaps some aesthetic qualities speak to you? Or maybe it’s the specific concept? You probably would like to capture that thing in your game, so it’s well worth identifying it. Here are few examples I’ve tried myself.

The Middle-earth

There are literally whole books trying to define J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium unique qualities, so I won’t do it here in full. But for me personally, in the gaming context, the world of the Lord of the Rings is a world of things passing. Therefore, to fully capture the spirit of Middle-earth for me, any story set in it should deal with an aspect of carefully preserved or perhaps inevitably lost good. You may throw a “dungeon-crawl” or a thievery mission in, but – for me – there must be some deeper background for it. Otherwise, the captivating atmosphere of Tolkien’s work will probably be lost.

Other worlds

Another example is Lovecraftian alternate history. In it, the space hides things inconceivable for the human mind. Gargantuan in size and yet not measurable in simple geometrical units, entities drift across the void between the galaxies or move, create and devour the stars by themselves. Humankind is not the pinnacle of creation. Something I often find missing in the most published “Call of Cthulhu” scenarios is this notion as the dominant element. The authors focus rather on the monsters or evil sorcerers. This leads to a more “Indiana Jones”-style – which could also be great and, in fact, sometimes is also for me. But the weirdness of H.P. Lovecraft is something I would like to experience more. But that’s the topic for another series to come.

Don’t stretch the stomach too much

One more thing that you should keep in mind while adding to your favourite setting is the scale of events. Given that there’s some original material already known to you and your players – as it’s the case with the Lord of the Rings – make sure that your game will harmonize with it. Or make sure that it’ll be OK if your RPG narrative actually alters the primary one that you all enjoy.

It was the reason I chose the Brown Lands as the scene for my first campaign in Middle-earth. I didn’t exactly know how the story would develop, but I surely didn’t want it to overshadow the events from Tolkien’s books. Thus, even the most heroic deeds by the player characters, if committed in this desolate area, would hardly make a difference in the broader world.

And I must follow, if I can, pursuing it with eager feet, until it joins some larger way

So, these are my thoughts about the very first RPG campaign in Middle-earth. While creating it, I learned a lot, especially about why I love this unique world. I hope you may find what attracts you to the realm of Tolkien’s work while being a GM in Middle-earth. Or maybe there’s another setting you run or would like to run your game in? Please, share any of those with me, I’d be more than happy to hear from you!

7 thoughts on “A Tale Never Heard of in Middle-earth – (Sub)creating a story in the well-known setting”

  1. I really enjoyed the read, it was clear and to the point. The part you discuss thinking about why you’re choosing a particular setting was good, and actually got me thinking about Call of Cthulhu and the games of that I’ve played as well as sessions of The One Ring that I’ve ran and wil run. All in I think it’s a great insight into your mindset going into GMing your game with loads of interesting take aways.

    1. Thanks for the endorsement! Sharing my mindset as a GM is one of my main goals here, so it’s great to read that it works. And Call of Cthulhu homebrew campaign is coming up shortly, too. 😉

  2. That’s a great way of explaining it! I enjoyed the point of view and I totally agree on this ideas! The concept of something bigger related to the fight of light versus shadow always happening on the background is exactly what gives the world that Tolkien feel!

    Great article, I will be waiting the next ones

    1. Thanks for the appreciation! I’ll be driving into various aspects of evoking Tolkien-like feel in my further posts.
      By the way, I’m curious how do you try or see this aspect in your sessions? And how your group as a whole feels about it?

  3. As with the other two gentlemen to post, here, I believe your post is straight to the point and very well written. Having been a GM for as long as I have, I never really tire of other GamesMasters writing about their experiences, their lessons learned and, perhaps, one day I will do the same, through sharing tales of past adventure groups and game sessions. To that end, I believe you really have something here, and this has been an excellent inaugural blog post. Huzzah!!!

    1. Thanks, friend! I’m also always eager to read about other Game Masters’ experiences. I hope to see some of those in replies to my future posts. Taking from others’ lessons is a great way of improving.

  4. Pingback: The first session of RPG campaign in the Brown Lands - Setting the Stage

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