The New Shadow: Tolkien and Table-Top Gaming

I have had Tolkien on the brain lately.  It started with re-watching the uncut movies and for the first time, watching the making of features.  Then Cubicle 7 dropped their news.

Before going to bed tonight, I was peeking around at the Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Here are the juicy, game-able bits:

256 From a letter to Colin Bailey 13 May 1964

[An account of Tolkien’s unfinished story ‘The New Shadow’. (See also no. 338.)]

I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall [of Mordor], but it proved both sinister and depressing.  Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good.  So that people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless – whiel the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors – like Denethor or worse.  I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going round doing damage.  I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow – but it would be just that.  Not worth doing.

Not worth doing?  Oh man, what is wrong with thrillers?

Let’s get to letter 338:

…there would be secret societies practicing dark cults, and ‘orc-cults’ among adolescents.

Every once in a while there is a thread on, in which someone complains about how their group has wedged itself into a really difficult and complicated moral situation that will make the world an entirely different place from what was initially envisioned and planned for.  They are looking for an answer, a way to set the campaign back to rights and to my eye, the campaign seems to be just getting good.

This is how I feel reading these letters.  Since this era untouched and unfinished, it feels ripe for gaming.

Descendants of Agaron and Arwen, struggling to live up to their ancestors’ legends, punk noble kids in Gondor who have taken their grand-parents’ artifacts from Mordor, dusted it off and made Sauron as suddenly hip.  Yeah, cool kids taking out their eyes, replacing it with dwarf-wrought clockwork glass so their parents do not know that they are worshiping the long dead Lord of the Rings, putting on tusked masks and going out orcing during moonless nights.


Dig this answer to a letter asking about the other two colors of wizards:

I have not named the colours, because I do not know them.  I doubt if they had distinctive colours.  Distinction was only required in the case of the three who remained in the relatively small area of the North-west.  I really do not know anything clearly about the other two – since they do not concern the history of the N.W.  I think they went as emissaries to distance regions, East and South, far out of Numenorean range: missionaries to ‘enemy-occupied’ lands, as it were.  What success they had I do not know; but I fear that they failed, as Saruman did, though doubtless in different ways; and I suspect they were founders or beginners of secret cults and ‘magic’ traditions that outlasted the Fall of Sauron.

Now we’re talking.  As the governors of Gondor struggle to govern among the flawed and prideful spawn of Aragorn, Satanic cults start up among the Gondorian noble kids, and apprentices of failed angels arrive from distant lands.  Lands that are bankrupt now that their patron, the Lord Eye has fallen silent have come to the Men of the West in order to start trade and learn the fate of the other Istari (wizards).

What a glorious mess.

Now we’re gaming.

18 thoughts on “The New Shadow: Tolkien and Table-Top Gaming

  1. That sounds awesome. This is exactly what I would want a LotR RPG for, not for the times already documented, but for the times that came later.

    Back in the day, I was one of two rotating GMs in a Middle Earth campaign set in the 4th age. The Telcontar heirs had basically become tyrants and many of their former allies were close to rebellion. Then the two Blue Istari returned from the East. One of them had already fashioned an Empire in the East and was looking to expand, the other had remained true to the ideals of the Istari and opposed him. The PCs were caught in the middle. It was HELLA fun, and I would love to resurrect it.

      • It’s been awhile, so it isn’t all fresh and clear. We used mostly ICE Middle Earth supplements, though we were running this with D&D. It all started in the Court of Ardor supplement, which was where the characters gained a lot of experience and cool items. It was seeded with clues about the Blue Istari. The characters travelled north and into Umbar, which was where we encountered our first hint that Gondor was no longer a shining beacon of hope, as the Telcontar kings had both a secret police and an elite (and very nasty) military company called (creatively) the Sardhukar. Clues led through the ruins of Isengard, to Southern Mirkwood and Radaghast the Brown’s abandoned holdings, where the characters encountered the good Blue Istari (though not IDed at the time). He directed them through the forest (getting very dark and dangerous again) to the Necromancers Lair, which was again inhabited. For once, the character chose the better part of valour and made it to the village of Strayhold on the Eastern eaves of Mirkwood alive, only to discover a cult of Morgoth and a secret Palantir which revealed—duh duh DUH—the Necromancer aka the bad Blue Istari.

        And that’s as far as we got. Would have been awesome to finish it, and the back and forth made an odd narrative, perhaps slightly disjointed, but always surprising.

        The characters were a human Psionicist, a half-elven Ranger, a half-elven Duelist, and a human cavalier. Yes, this was 1E, using articles from Dragon, Unearthed Arcana and both the Dungeoneers and Wilderness Survival Guides.

        Am I dating myself with that?

  2. I would play this. For the system I would prefer either Burning Wheel or a hack of In A Wicked Age with oracles built directly from the letters.

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  4. When I first read those Letters, I was torn between my adoration of Tolkien and unflinching reverence for his own opinion of his work… and the sheer unimaginable awesome of the declining, decadent Kingdom and the youthful Orc-cults! \m/

    Today, I’m not torn.

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