Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Middle-earth Thieves' World Cage Match

It is not really surprising that so many people come to Middle-earth, and LotRO, intent on playing dark, brooding, sell-swords who would as soon stab you in the back as look at you. These "dark and gritty" anti-heroes are the bread and butter of late 20th century fantasy fiction, and when I single out "Thieves World" as the best example I really do mean it as a point of distinction. There are only so many dark elf assassins that one man can take, and the fact that they wear their knives under black cloaks instead of trenchcoats doesn't make them any less trendy or overdone. It can be done well, as Thieves World (irregularly) attests, but these sorts of characters and themes are utterly at odds with Tolkien's setting.

When there's a shady character watching you from the corner of the Vulgar Unicorn, you can bet that he's sizing you up as an easy mark, and he's probably going to signal his three buddies waiting outside to jump you as soon as you go outside to take a piss. But when a shady character watches you from the corner of the Prancing Pony, he turns out to be the Heir of Isildur, the one hope for the restoration of the Kingdom of Gondor and Arnor. In Thieves' World, that guy watching you will be wearing a ring stolen off a southern bandit which poisons you with a touch, or which protects him from the dozen magical spells you could hurl at him to defend yourself; "Strider" is wearing a ring which is thousands of years old, which has been passed down from father to son through all the kings of the North, and which has no magical powers whatsoever. The cutpurse watching you in Sanctuary has a dozen knives of varying length hidden in every concievable body cavity; Aragorn is armed only with a sword that is broken in half.

Clearly, this is not your Daddy's fantasy fiction. What is going on here?

Tolkien's heroes are grand; the protagonists in the "realistic" fantasy fiction that has come since are identifiable by their smallness. They are ordinary people in (relatively) ordinary situations. Sure, they rub shoulders with orcs, ogres, and sadistic see-in-the-dark drow, but even these strange situations seldom seem noteworthy or unusual. While the heroes of Middle-earth are constantly amazed, horrified, and even intrigued by the fantastic things they come across, the veterans of the Vulgar Unicorn exist in a permanently jaded state. Nothing impresses them, nothing scares them, nothing prevents them from tossing off some sarcastic quip or noting how ironic this whole questing thing is, if you think about it.

It is easy to see why players try to make these common man heroes in Middle-earth. In some respects, Frodo himself is a very ordinary person. Indeed, all the Hobbits are pretty ordinary, and that is what makes them such great protagonists. But even Meriadoc was the heir to Brandybuck Hall, and Pippin was the eldest son of the ruler of the Took family. The closest thing you have to a common man hero in LotR is Sam ... and Sam is as pure of heart, just, and good, as any hero of any fairy tale ever written. We're talking about a guy who talks to his pony, for chrissakes, who kisses his master's hand and weeps once a chapter. There aren't many players out there who really want to make a character with the virtues of Samwise Gamgee. He's a great partner for Frodo on the Ring Quest, but when it comes to playable PCs we're really looking at people like Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf, and the late, great, Boromir. Grand, all of them. With ancient pedigrees and momentous quests. They are great men -- and as Boromir shows us, great even in their failings.

There are a few tragic heroes in Middle-earth, but bad things happen to them despite their heroic deeds, not because of their awful ones. Turin has sex with his sister, but unlike the Byronic heroes which modern anti-heroes are the grandsons of, he didn't know it at the time. The tragic anti-heroes that an alarming number of people bring to LotRO owe more to the bloodcurdling fantasy of Elric than to Tolkien. And it is beneficial at this point to recall that when he set out to write his fantasy epics, Moorcock explicitly sought to write something not at all like Tolkien. Indeed, as anti-Tolkien as possible. And it is from he that all those poison-wielding, sadistic, but oh-so-elegant and magically potent elves derive.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And when you walk the road that goes ever on to Middle-earth, give up the smart-ass, Han Solo everyman characters that have become so much a symbol of postmodern fantasy and instead play by the rules of the setting. Embrace the great, grand, nature of these characters. Imagine someone bigger than yourself. Someone whose past is measured not in inglorious tavern brawls and knives in the dark, but in unrelenting bravery against a foe which is ultimately greater than he. For Tolkien's setting may not be petty, but it is still dark and depressing in its way -- the whole world sliding down into darkness from which no force mortal or elf can save it, and those players who shun Tolkien's setting because they think it too happy, too "bright and cheerful," are as innocent and ignorant as those pie-eating shirefolk.


Veingloria said...

Well said... but it also points to what could be a potentially huge problem for LOTRO RPers. What if you just aren't a person of epic qualities? Tolkien's major characters have become almost Jungian archeypes for post-mythical Americans. Is that something a person can pretend to be, or does RPing a Tolkien hero/ine just ask to much of even a slightly above-average mind?

Doctor J said...

You know, you touch on a few different things here, and they're all right.

LotR has become almost Jungian in its impact on America -- arguably even moreso than it has on England, Tolkien's intended audience. He confessed he never really understood this, and he may even have been vaguely frustrated by it. He doesn't seem to have had much interest in America, except when it came time to collecting the Oliphaunt-sized royalty checks.

And yes, it is difficult to roleplay a person of, as you nicely put it, "epic qualities." But I do think it is something a person can do, and it's not even terribly hard if you commit yourself to doing it.

I personally find it almost impossible, for example, to learn a foreign language in the classroom. But if you are thrown into an environment where you must learn it, what they call immersion, then you are forced to learn it, and your brain rises to the challenge. Learning a language is not a bad metaphor, since learning to RP Tolkien is, by and large, a problem of learning language.

It is -hard- to talk like Tolkien's characters, and trying to do can be intimidating to anyone, but it's worth doing. Contrary to the opinions of many who tried to read the book but found it "boring", all of Tolkien's characters do not talk alike. Bilbo and Balin can be saying the same thing to one another but do it in entirely different ways. That's good for us roleplayers -- because if all these people talked the same we would find it incorrigibly dull.

But I believe that if you throw yourself into Middle-earth immersion, if you commit to things like a) avoiding slang and colloqialsisms, b) looking up the occasional Sindarin, c) avoid talking game speak unless absolutely necessary, and d) surrounding yourself with people who -also do these things-, you will find your inner Epic rising to the occasion.

There's something vaguely naughty in that last sentence, but you know what I mean.

Anonymous said...

Though I like where you are coming from and your position in this essay, I believe that there is more "room to be faithful" than I sense in what you right.

One element of genius in Tolkien's tale is that very few of the heroes are traditionally heroic in the "knight in shining armor" sense of that tradition. So many of the heroes are unassuming and often full of self-doubt. Tolkien makes heroes out of the most humble, a part of his genius, I think. So many of the great heroes are so unassuming and on the surface not terribly heroic. Tolkien's heroism shines out of the inner struggle.

In LOTRO, being "faithful" to Tolkien's kind of heroism will be hard to bring across because we don't have a means of giving each other the inner dialogue that is taking place in our characters. So surface appearances may not be a full rendering of the character.

Personally, I am thoroughly enjoying the exploration of a character (Samdur) who I envision as a kind of "an everyman" kid from the streets of Bree but with a flavor of heritage that he has the possibility of blossoming into or of failing to achieve. That too is part of Tolkien's world. From Sauron to Saruman to Smeagol, Tolkien gives us characters who had the greatest potential who fell, who made choices that led to their corruption and destruction.

Do I envision Samdur going down the Saruman path? No, not really. But I do like the idea of exploring the inner life of a character whose background is not born out of the idyll of the Shire or that of hidden royalty. And I think there is room to be faithful to Tolkien there.

My 2 bits...


Doctor J said...

I can certainly see the appeal of an everyman hero, and there is much to be said for the simple truth that you are having fun with it. This is, after all, a game intended to be fun. So ... working as intended!

I am not entirely sure I can agree much with your suggestion that the novel gives more chance for inner dialogue and character development than a game, however, because we almost never hear any internal dialogue anywhere in LotR. I think we get it from Sam on occasion. But in general, Tolkien underplays all this sort of stuff. When Aragorn is undergoing terrible grief and depression over Arwen while in Lorien, he doesn't say a thing to Frodo about it. We know he's sad, but that's about it. We have to imagine what is really going on there; Tolkien doesn't spell it out any more than our chat window does.

All I am trying to say with that is that we can have great character development in this game without using an internal monologue; Tolkien shows us how in his own novel. It just requires everyone else to pay attention!

But, really, it is the jaded 'seen everything and nothing surprises or wows me anymore' post-modern archetype that I have the most problem with, and it is certainly possible to play an Everyman that is not jaded.

Thanks for joining the conversation, by the way. Samdur may display some of the traits I ranted against here, but I really do think you go a step beyond most of the roleplayers on LotRO.

Anonymous said...

I have to chuckle because I think we agree on far more than we might disagree on.

You're observation that Tolkien doesn't give us a lot of internal dialogue is spot on. I've long been a fan of writers who show rather tell about character and character development. I think it fits rather well into an RP'd environment for precisely the reason you pointed out: we can't give each other an internal dialogue.

The point I'm trying to explore in Samdur is the "discovery of the inner epic" in the more or less common Man.

Tolkien's characters are rarely what they seem on the surface, and that pattern seems to be almost a universal truth with him. I'm thinking here in particular of Strider, Gandalf, Frodo, Saruman, Gollum, Sam, Elrond, etc. It is so easy to make a snap judgement about "what" kind of person each of these characters is and we do when we first encounter them. Then, as the story develops, so much more is revealed about them. Some of that revelation is learning about their history, some of it comes as they learn about themselves.

Anyway... It's fun chatting about this stuff, Doc.

Thanks for provoking the conversation.


Doctor J said...

When you say Tolkien's heroes rarely are what they seem on the surface, I think that's really true. I hadn't thought about it like that, but the whole "All that is gold does not glitter" business certainly backs you up. Bilbo the country gentleman/expert treasure finder, Hobbits which look frail but as "tough as old tree roots," as you point out the examples go on and on.

Imraheth is also not what she appears, and I look forward to seeing what Samdur turns into.

Thanks to you for reading and writing!

Anonymous said...

Titte: The Problem with Pomo Trenchcoast Elrician Elves in JRRT's world and "Is there corruption in LOTRO?"

Brilliant post on the inherent "problem" of the fantasy genre (which I don't think JRRT's work belongs nor did he intentionally create--see Shippey for at length discussion or myth, legend, and romance, right JT?) and more importantly, *the inability of RGP'ers to distinguish between the allegorical vs. the analogical character of the Primary and Secondary worlds*; or as you put it, the inability of players to "immerse" themselves in JRRT's world and instead transform it into one by the likee of Moorcock's (which leaves me cold)

By this I'm suggestion that both writers and readers of fantasy fiction and fantasy rpg'er treat their Secondary World(s)as simply allegories (a "no-no" for JRRT) or reflection of our Primary one, thus destroying the possibility of true Secondary World (something totally missing from our "modern" experience)

Perhaps this rather terse and hasty conclusion offers a possible explanation of the phenomenon you are observing in general and in those (the Valar bless them!) who are actually attempting to RGP in LOTRO.

Rather than go on about this, I am wondering (since I've not been into LOTRO) is whether "corruption" is a part of the game dynamic in any way. As a former player of ICE's now very very dead Middle Earth CCG and one who looked at Decipher's RPG, I think both of these systems gave "corruption" their due; thus giving them a true Tolkien feel.

So, I'm wondering if LOTRO has or will have some aspect that can turn the character to the Shadow, depending on the character's decisions. Thus, quests would change as the character became "corrupt." Well, could say more, but it might just be/sound foolish. I leave other (esp. JT) to comment on this.