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Thursday, December 10, 2020

Fantasy Lit Sources as Settings

A random Twitter poll about perception checks and an unrelated forum discussion on using Middle Earth as an RPG setting got me thinking about the way GMs handle “out-of-character” knowledge. For GMs of a certain type, keeping strict separation between what the players know or believe and what the characters know is overwhelmingly important. After all, you don’t want characters inventing gun powder and machine guns, allowing them to take over every medieval kingdom, do you? For GMs at the other extreme, player knowledge is fine, although for technical knowledge they may use character scores and cultural assessments to judge how successful medieval versions of modern inventions will be.

This range of responses to player/character knowledge affects one area in particular: using books, film, and other media as source material for a setting. It’s a tempting choice for most GMs, because it saves some effort and allows players to get the feel of a setting quickly, allowing them to “act” like characters who really do live in that world. But this runs into the player knowledge problem: how do you prevent characters in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, for example, from finding the One Ring, or killing the Balrog before it kills the dwarven colonists (or battles with Gandalf)?

You can, of course, not worry about whether players change what’s supposed to happen, according to the novels. Or on the other extreme, set the date after the events of the novels. But even in those circumstances, allowing players to quickly find locations or items without the same effort that characters in the source media had to use may feel a bit off and spoil the mood. What do you do when a player says “I go to the Gates of Moria, say ‘mellon’ to open the gates, and go inside”?

The strict separation GMs usually either flat-out tell the player “Your character doesn’t know that”. Or, if feeling generous, they call for knowledge and perception rolls to see how close the PC gets to the location of the gates, and whether the PC knows what the inscription says and figures out what it means.

I tend towards the opposite extreme, myself, and don’t like knowledge rolls or perception checks. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t make it easy. It’s been a while since I’ve read The Hobbit or LotR, and even a few years since I’ve seen any of the movies, but I don’t remember them giving precise locations for the Gates of Moria or other points of interest.

A Middle Earth character probably knows which direction to go from where they are to reach the Misty Mountains. If they are from a region within sight of the Misty Mountains, they probably know the names of the peaks in the range. Very specific types of characters may even know where the mountain passes are. But unless you’re Gandalf or a member of a dwarven expedition that’s seen historical records relating to Moria, you wouldn’t know where the gates were. And if a player wants to use player knowledge to get to Moria… fine. Where are they, exactly? Even if you are allowed to read the books during a play session (and you shouldn’t be allowed to do that. Just saying… ) Fellowship skips over the gritty details of how to find the mountain, let alone the gates into the mountain. Moria is in the “middle” of the Misty Mountains, which I see according to a Tolkien wiki are about 700+ miles long, so a player without special knowledge could get within about a hundred miles of the gate’s location, I suppose. Then they could spend a few weeks or months searching for the gate.

From the perspective of people in Middle Earth, a PC searching for Moria would look like a kook, running back and forth across the foothills trying to find some lost city of the dwarves. With luck, they might become the Heinrich Schliemann of Middle Earth. Play this out! Make the PC actually set up camps, gather resources, and explore the region.

I may develop more ideas on this later.

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  1. This is exactly why I never liked to use these kinds of settings, which also include established FRPG settings with lots of splat books. I never wanted to make these kinds of decisions. It always seemed easier in the long run to just make your own campaign world.

  2. With Kneipen & Knappen this was something I was thinking of as well. My solution was to have the players build all of the public-facing parts of the world that anyone could directly experience, then have the GM do secret worldbuilding with those as constraints.

  3. I might use LotR, or more likely the Hobbit as setting inspiration, but not have any of the game happening around the storyline of the book. Perhaps overlapping with parts of the Hobbit, but not the war of the ring. I’ve played a few games based on fiction where that was done, and it worked quite well. Players knew the world, but were free to act and adventure without worry about the published storylines and characters. Some of my first AD&D 1e games were in fact that. Set in middle earth, with demi-humans run close to our agreed perceptions of the books, thus not quite the same as published in the rules. Mostly we were different human cultures, not elves or dwarves. It worked well for about half of us for a while. The other half weren’t really fans of Tolkien, so we drifted to other games that suited the majority view.

  4. I think if I ever used a literary setting I'd put the campaign sometime after the novels events. That way the novels act as public knowledge.

    Instead of destroying the ring the players can deal with the Mouth of Sauron trying to keep control of the Orcs and Trolls in Mordor now that Sauron is gone, the Goblin King I the Misty Mountains uniting his Goblins with the Orcs in Moria and threatening the West, and the palace intrigue in Gondor after the assassination of Aragorn, or something like that.