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Grit

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Grit

Postby Throttle » Wed Dec 25, 2013 8:06 am

The brief discussion on the steal/lockpick skills got me thinking about something that has always nagged me about SOI and other Tolkien-themed games: how gritty should the setting be?

There's almost two ways of interpreting Middle-Earth. One is where Tolkien wrote mostly about the more heroic, noble and archetypical things, the stark black-and-white theme that he's known for, but it can be assumed that more base things took place. There would be petty thieves, common scoundrels, drunkards in the street and so on, we just don't hear much about them in the literature. There's a few notable examples such as Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and Bill Ferny, but does the existence of these token characters imply that there are more like them or is their deliberately charicatural nature an indication of them being the rare exception? If this were a common thing, would they have been portrayed so prominently?

The other interpretation of the setting is, of course, that "bad amongst good" is so uncommon that each instance (Saruman, Grima Wormtongue, etc.) is significant. There would be no human villagers stealing from their neighbours, no assholes picking fights at the bar, no drunken tramps in the alleyway. The blacks and whites of the setting are rules where the few exceptions are worthy of their own stories. Bad behaviour is caused by full-blown corruption of the individual and is otherwise only seen on the "dark side." This would fiercely discourage human PCs from being cruel, dishonest and greedy whereas the first interpretation gives people a lot more freedom to roleplay as they please but is also likely to ensure that there's more of these types than were ever represented in any of Tolkien's works.

What do you think?
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Re: Grit

Postby Brian » Wed Dec 25, 2013 10:39 am

The perspective that most vibes with me is one that is both classical and also not so widely known, unless you have dug a little bit deeper into works outside the main ones, and looked at some of the analysis of them. That perspective is that though Arda was initially conceived as a perfect creation it has been perverted. Morgoth, in his desire for domination and mastery of Arda, instilled his essence into the very physical fabric of the world. This is what bound him to the physical world more strongly than the other Valar and caused him to lose his ability to change form. It also enhanced his strength in things physical, but took away his ability to create and make new things; he could now only twist what was already made manifest.

However, because of this, everything that is in the world (Middle-Earth at least; it has always been unclear to me if Valinor is exempt), that is made of physical substance or that consumes the physical world for sustenance has been touched in some way by Morgoth. Every person born into Middle-Earth, or that eats things grown from the ground has been infiltrated, if only subtly, by Morgoth. This isn't to say that everybody has been riddled with plague or anything, just that the "essence" of evil if you will is present in all things. Some things hold onto it more strongly, gold for instance, and water is basically free of it.

What this does though, is shows that by nature all the things in the world are good. That is their essential nature, only that essential nature is to greater or lesser degrees possibly invaded with the potential for evil. Morgoth made the world his One Ring in attempt to bring all things in it under his power. He was unsuccessful in fully dominating anyone, but he has made the possibility of that fall possible in many wide ranging ways. It isn't like the One Ring is where it focuses a concentrated power on one holder, but it spreads far wider.

I think this perspective allows the possibility for all manner of attitudes in a way that is consistent with Tolkien's intentions. Nobody in the world "knows" this. You wouldn't have people saying to each other "Tom the thief really has a lot of Morgoth's dispersed essence in him, he's such a bad man" but it acts as background information for why these people who are in their intended essence the children of Illuvatar may not be acting in accordance with his intentions.
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Re: Grit

Postby Burke » Wed Dec 25, 2013 9:39 pm

Definitely what Brian said, though with the caveat that Tolkien didn't really articulate this conception of the world as Morgoth's Ring until after The Lord of the Rings was published. I know it's at best quasi-canonical, but the volume Morgoth's Ring is certainly one of my favorite in the History of Middle Earth series because it shows Tolkien post-LotR grappling with trying to reconcile the secondary world he had created with the Catholic ethics and epistemology central to his own worldview. Even though none of the writing there is finished, I think some parts of it are as powerful as anything that ended up in his published works or in The Silmarillion.

All that to say that, definitely, there is both petty and great evil in Tolkien's world--and, if to stay true to that worlds author (or scribe), there is also sin. Stories of corruption and of redemption and sheer grittiness could all very much be part of that. And remember, these are books that remind us that pity for another can be our own salvation and that even the worst and maddest steward was once a great man committed to his people. They are not starkly black-and-white in their depiction of characters.
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Re: Grit

Postby Octavius » Fri Dec 27, 2013 12:44 pm

I think that the personal struggle of this is important, and it is exceptionally important to consider if we're playing around the central theme of Erebor. The greed of dwarves and dragons should be central somewhere.

Personally, I like fantasizing about code things, even though unlikely we can or would do them. (Getting too crazy with the "cool code ideas" is the death of a MUD, as coders are a scarce and overburdened resource.)

My latest code daydream is to have a "greed" level on characters to tie into the Erebor theme (largely similar to the dwarven attribute worked into the Burning Wheel fantasy roleplay system). As characters encounter objects in the game that would inspire covetousness, their level could rise. It could prompt them to say "you admire so-and-so's <object>" to encourage roleplay. It could possibly allow them to respond by typing "resist" or "subcumb" depending which they want their character to react. Staff could also initiate prompts based on scenes they are running, and players could self-initiate if they want to fall into greed purposefully. The greed levels would be something staff could use to pick on characters during plotlines (as the deep Morgoth influence would attract like to like). Or, if we're in a time when Smaug is awake...

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Re: Grit

Postby Octavius » Fri Dec 27, 2013 12:58 pm

On the original topic of grit, we also need to account for the Peter Jackson influence. Whether we like it or not, his new adaptation of Tolkien's work will be canon for many, if not most, of our players. We do hope to have the interest level in this game rise based on the movies and so his vision is relevant.

Peter Jackson made some stark choices in designing Laketown that interpret broadly beyond Tolkien:
  • The Master of Laketown has abolished the representative government and ruled unilaterally for some time. (They make a joke that people might want an election and he dismisses it as something he'd not allow.)
  • All boats and cargo are strictly searched, closely regulated, and heavily taxed. (They threaten to destroy his fish because he's only licensed to have empty barrels.)
  • All metal weapons and armor are confiscated and in the town vault, to ensure an unarmed populace. Only the town enforcers are permitted.
  • The populace is kept on the brink of starvation (a major plot point) while the Master and his cronies hoard the profits and live luxuriously.

In Peter Jackson's canon, this is a highly-gritty scenario where evil and greed are indeed prominent. That type of setting (organized crime boss with tight control over the whole civilian population without alternate oversight) offers something very different than I would have seen Tolkien designing under the above scenario.

For my personal opinion... it is also not a world that I'd enjoy playing in.

One of the things that I like -most- about Tolkien IS the assumption that societies and people are naturally-good. Tolkien lived through World War I and it impacted him immensely. He saw senseless death and carnage first hand, and I think that plays a major role in the themes that he developed.

I watched a documentary a few weeks ago on Tolkien where they talked about the word "eucatastrophe" which he tried to get to catch on. A catastrophe is when things are good and suddenly go bad, but it was his belief that things more often were bad, and suddenly take a turn for the good. He was dismayed by our lack of a word for this. That sort of thought makes me love the man all the more.

ARPI and PRPI are examples of worlds were Grit is the core of the setting. It works well there, as a post-apocalyptic genre. I think it is important that Grit not be the center for a Tolkien game. I truly value the hope he had for our world, and want to see a game that has a core of goodness and of hope that people can immerse in, can build in based on those hopes and desires for a future, and where evil can be faced, fought, and overcome.
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Re: Grit

Postby Emilio » Fri Dec 27, 2013 1:17 pm

Octavius wrote:The populace is kept on the brink of starvation (a major plot point) while the Master and his cronies hoard the profits and live luxuriously.


That reminds too much of the current spanish government and political parties.
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Re: Grit

Postby Feawen » Fri Dec 27, 2013 1:21 pm

I agree that it would also be too gritty for me. The only way I'd want to play in such a game would be if we were allowed to blow the "canon" to smithereens temporarily and overthrow the Master.

EDIT: Dangit, now I have The Sound of Drums stuck in my head.
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Re: Grit

Postby Throttle » Fri Dec 27, 2013 1:59 pm

On the original topic of grit, we also need to account for the Peter Jackson influence. Whether we like it or not, his new adaptation of Tolkien's work will be canon for many, if not most, of our players. We do hope to have the interest level in this game rise based on the movies and so his vision is relevant.


This is exactly why I wanted to start this discussion. There's going to be a lot of people coming in whose primary inspiration is these movies, and I'd be a little worried about what trends this might create. The films paint Middle-Earth in a very different light, and where the original SOI came about on the coattails of the comparatively quite faithful LOTR films, this game will be influenced by films that take much greater liberties with the setting. I think it's safe to expect that most players will enter the game with a mental image of Laketown as portrayed in the recent movie in all its corrupt, nefarious, repressed glory, and that many character concepts will reflect this.


I think it is important that Grit not be the center for a Tolkien game. I truly value the hope he had for our world, and want to see a game that has a core of goodness and of hope that people can immerse in, can build in based on those hopes and desires for a future, and where evil can be faced, fought, and overcome.


Right, and I think it might even be necessary to write a piece of documentation that deliberately explains this. There's room for unpleasant characters and roleplay, but even the original SOI often pushed the limits of what can be excused in a Middle-Earth setting, having criminal organizations within Osgiliath/Minas-Tirith and far too many characters whose personalities and behaviour would make Tolkien turn in his grave. While the game would be boring if everyone had to play ultra-good altruists, the opposite is probably best kept the exception. There have been times where SOI's in-game atmosphere was interchangable with Armageddon's, and it really cheapened the entire premise of the game.
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Re: Grit

Postby Drew7uk » Sat Dec 28, 2013 3:37 am

Not a particularly helpful answer but I think there needs to be a healthy balance, just as there is in life. People can identify with that.

What Octavius said also rings true - for there to be sufficient hope, and elements of joy or achievement for good, there need to be elements of struggle, hopelessness and evil to break through in the first place.

As a former Mordor RPA one might say I'm slightly biased, but I always strongly believed in the excitement from elements of Morgoth penetrating the world and giving players an opportunity to play the bad guys. In the same vein as above, without truly bad guys you can't have truly good guys.
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Re: Grit

Postby Rivean » Sat Dec 28, 2013 4:10 am

Throttle wrote:...the original SOI often pushed the limits of what can be excused in a Middle-Earth setting, having criminal organizations within Osgiliath/Minas-Tirith and far too many characters whose personalities and behaviour would make Tolkien turn in his grave.


Sorry about that!

Otherwise, I'm with Drew.

This isn't the first time this sort of debate has come up (and I agree that particularly now when we're starting fresh, it's very important to have a clear and unified understanding of what the IG world/culture really is like). I remember the bitter Golden Gondor debates of bygone years.

My position then, as it is now, is as follows:

    1. Regardless of whether or not Tolkien created a world that was predominantly good in a way that the real world is not, such a world does NOT provide the conflict necessary to fuel a MUD-based story-setting, and therefore requires some modification in order to be a better, more interesting game.

    2. Most importantly, roleplay, at its root, is about portraying the nuances of human nature. If one is living in a world where crime is almost nonexistent, and 'grit' is mostly invisible, then the nature of the human being is markedly different from the nature of the human being in our world. This distinction is not broadly understood in the game setting, and furthermore, it limits one's ability to portray said human nature by narrowing the range that is viably expressed in game. If one wants to enjoy an 'alien' non-human experience, well, that's what one has other non-human races for. It's no coincidence, I think, looking back at it now, that all of my characters have been human.

    3. The grit, therefore, is necessary and unavoidable in any world that represents human beings accurately. That it is noticeably absent in Tolkien's works suggests that said works are not (and were never intended to be) accurate representations of the human condition - something central to roleplay.

    4. As others have pointed out - a certain amount of dark and grey is necessary in order to contrast against light, else the latter loses all distinction. Plus, as, I pointed out in point No. 1, nobody really likes to sit around all day smiling at each other over cups of tea.
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Re: Grit

Postby Throttle » Sat Jan 25, 2014 11:37 pm

Regardless of whether or not Tolkien created a world that was predominantly good in a way that the real world is not, such a world does NOT provide the conflict necessary to fuel a MUD-based story-setting, and therefore requires some modification in order to be a better, more interesting game.


I agree with that for sure. However, it's important to prevent it from getting too jarring. There were times during SOI's history where the ostensibly good parts of the game were full of murderers and organized criminals, which is something I hope doesn't repeat itself too much.

Instead, the recent movies - which are inevitably going to influence how people approach the game - paint a picture of a Laketown ruled by an unpleasant, semi-corrupt governor whose lackeys treat people poorly and throw their clout around a bit too liberally. This will be a good way to generate conflict and greyness without resorting to things that would clash too much with the source material.

What is the plan for Laketown and the staff view on its portrayal in the Hobbit movies?
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Re: Grit

Postby Icarus » Mon Jan 27, 2014 3:05 pm

There were hobbit movies? When did that happen? I sure am glad that Peter Jackson didn't completely bumfrack the great stuff he did in the LOTR by jumping the shark completely on an ill-conceived visualization of the Hobbit. I mean, could you imagine if he cowtowed to some studio love-interest requirement and added drawf/elf love? How silly would that be!

(The only thing from Jackson that I will support making its way into our game is the visual style. As far as grit, I'm right in line with Brian's corruption ideal.)
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