I love LORD OF THE RINGS.

Now, that may come as a surprise from someone who routinely rails on generic medieval fantasy, but LORD OF THE RINGS has always been the exception for me. In fact, one of the reasons I criticize “generic” fantasy so much is because so much of it is trying to beat Tolkien in his own game… and failing miserably.

But despite the widespread popularity of LORD OF THE RINGS, despite the fact that everyone and their mother is trying to copy it, you don’t see many RPGs set in Middle Earth, do you?

…Why?

I honestly never understood this. The world of Arda is massive, it’s full of all sorts of interesting stories waiting to be told. So why is no one telling them? Entire generations have dreamed of exploring Middle Earth and of going on their own adventures within Tolkien’s world. So why is no one letting us?

It’s just this huge opportunity that nobody is grasping. To prove my point, I decided to brainstorm two ideas for a LORD OF THE RINGS RPG. All with different settings, time periods and features.

So how do we make a Middle Earth RPG? How do we expand Tolkien’s world without breaking it? Why aren’t more developers doing this? Well, let’s take a look!

1. Numenor: The Atlantis of LORD OF THE RINGS

Image courtesy of Izzi Saeta Cabrera.

The first and perhaps most obvious choice is to set a game during the fall of Numenor. This is a setting full of unique stories. It also has a very different feel from the rest of Tolkien’s world and could attract a whole new audience to the franchise.

What is Numenor?

Numenor is basically the Atlantis of Middle Earth. The men of Numenor were gifted with enhanced strength, intelligence, and longevity, and they used these powers to create a wondrous civilization, far beyond anything we see in the movies. A game set in Numenor would be the perfect way to show just how unique, diverse, and interesting LORD OF THE RINGS can be.

Tolkien never went into great detail about the technology of the Numenoreans, but what we have is pretty outlandish. There are some vague descriptions of flying ships, which can be interpreted as blimps or even airplanes. Most of these writings were never finished, but they give us insight into Tolkien’s vision for Numenor.

Tolkien’s depictions of Numenor almost perfectly mirror his views on modern industrial culture. The Numenoreans build gigantic skyscrapers, ships that don’t need sails, and possibly even guns! But there’s no soul to anything they build anymore. Everything is mass-produced, built not for the sake of art or necessity, but to satisfy their ambitions and egos.

Because of this, it’s easy to interpret Numenor as an industrial society, far beyond anything we’ve seen in the books or movies. Not only does this allow for a unique setting, but there’s a ton of room here for clever writing and relatable commentary, making it a perfect setting for a story-driven role-playing game.

The Game

Setting a game during the fall of Numenor would give us a new perspective on Tolkien’s universe that we just haven’t seen before. I’m imagining this game as an open-world RPG set during the final days of Numenor. You play as one of the few Numenoreans who resist Sauron’s corruption.

The goal of the game is to stage a rebellion against Sauron and the king by siding with various factions throughout the land of Numenor.

LORD OF THE RINGS RPG
Sure, we know how this ends in the actual canon, but think of these as alternate stories. Image courtesy of Darrel Sweet.

But  how do we make this game feel more unique, given the Numenorean setting?

Well like I said, I’ve always seen Numenor as this highly advanced, Atlantean society. So let’s incorporate that into the gameplay. In addition to traditional items like swords and bows, what if you could use the advanced technology of Numenor to your advantage?

There could be an entire skill tree dedicated to crafting and using advanced weapons, armor, and gadgets like parachutes, grappling hooks, and even explosives. The game should make you feel like a Numenorean. An intelligent, almost super-human being. Someone with both the brawn and the brains to solve any problem you face.

Numenor LORD OF THE RINGS RPG
Numenorean “technology” should feel advanced, but should still match the fantasy aesthetic of the series. Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

Numenor is one of the most legendary places in all of Middle Earth. Its very existence is a testament to both human achievement and human arrogance. It’s such a perfect setting that I’m honestly stunned nobody’s made a game based on it. But that’s why we’re here.

2. The Exile of the Noldor

Image courtesy of Firat Solhan.

This is one of my favorite ideas, because it shows just how easily the world of Arda can translate into an RPG. I want to play a game about the exile of the Noldor.

Who are the Noldor?

The Noldor are a race of Elves, and probably my favorite group of people in the lore. They’re strong, beautiful, and advanced in numerous ways. But they’re also arrogant jerks, so single-minded in their goals that they barely care who they hurt along the way.

A lot of people accuse morality in LORD OF THE RINGS of being a little too simplistic and black and white. I don’t necessarily disagree, but the Noldor are the perfect remedy for this criticism.

These guys are deeply three-dimensional, and they have a long and exciting history in both Middle Earth and the Undying Lands. In other words, we’ve got a lot to work with here.

But for this game, I want to focus on their most famous tale: their exile from the Undying Lands and their battles with the dark lord Morgoth.

The Game

The game would probably begin in the Undying Lands after Morgoth steals the Silmarils from Feanor. If you have no idea what I’m talking about don’t worry. Put simply, the big bad guy stole some magic gems and the guy who made them is trying to get them back.

This simple quest leads to centuries of adventure, countless catastrophes, and shakes the world of Arda to its very core.

You play as one of the many Noldor who makes the arduous journey to Middle Earth. Once you reach the shores of Middle Earth, you’re given your own territory to do with as you please.

Imagine creating your own kingdom in Middle Earth. Image courtesy of Krista Kinder on Pinterest.

This realm will grow in power and influence as you explore the world, make new friends and enemies, and go on various adventures throughout the land. As you prepare to face off against the forces of Morgoth, you’ll need to side with certain factions.

Each group has its own behavior and agenda and will influence your realm in various ways. In terms of gameplay, I imagine combat that feels a bit like SHADOW OF MORDOR, with the choices and dialogue systems of a classic RPG.

To spice things up, there would also be some basic strategy and management aspects to the game, particularly in regards to your realm. You can customize it how you like, side with who you want, and specialize in different trades and industries.

Explore a Land Never Before Seen in LORD OF THE RINGS

We’re also exploring a part of Middle Earth we’ve never seen before. The Noldor lives mostly in Beleriand, the northwestern part of Middle Earth. They built sprawling cities in Beleriand and engaged in legendary battles throughout this land. Unfortunately, Beleriand was destroyed during the final battles of the War of Wrath.

I want to see Beleriand for myself. I want to play the role of a powerful Elf-Lord exploring a new land. This is the perfect setting for an open-ended role-playing game taking place in Middle Earth.

LORD OF THE RINGS RPG
Imagine: a whole region of Middle Earth we’ve never seen. Image courtesy of Ted Nasmith.

The stories from Beleriand are ancient, almost mythical in nature. This land was full of epic heroes and villains, far more powerful than anything we’ve seen in THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

Most importantly, this era is full of opportunities for new, untold stories. There’s so much you can do with this setting, so much you can do with the Noldor. All it would take is a skilled development team to take these ideas and make them a reality.

Why is No One Making LORD OF THE RINGS RPGs?

So there you have it: two LORD OF THE RINGS RPG ideas I basically made up on the spot. But this begs the question:  if it’s so easy to come up with these ideas, why is no one making them?

Well at the end of the day it comes down to two problems: the license and the series itself.

The LORD OF THE RINGS License

Understandably, the Tolkien estate is not willing to dish out their license to just anybody. This simple fact drastically limits the number of LORD OF THE RINGS games on the market. What’s more concerning is that the estate rarely, if ever, gives developers a license to work on anything outside the main book series. Virtually every game set in Middle Earth takes place around the time of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and rarely references anything from the other books.

If we’re ever going to see a LORD OF THE RINGS RPG, it will have to come from a AAA studio, and they’ll need to secure the rights to more than just LORD OF THE RINGS. Thankfully, with the success of games like SHADOW OF MORDOR and the upcoming TV series set in Middle Earth, this policy may begin to shift, and we might get to see more games set in Tolkien’s world.

The Series

But there’s a deeper issue here. For various reasons, LORD OF THE RINGS is a victim of its own success. Because so many stories have copied Tolkien’s ideas, people often find the world of Arda to be boring and cliche. There are plenty of people that believe Tolkien’s world wouldn’t translate well into a game at all, because few people understand just how deep and unique it truly is.

Also, considering the way SHADOW OF WAR treated the lore, I can understand why hardcore fans are skeptical of any game expanding upon Tolkien’s world.

LORD OF THE RINGS RPG
Hardcore fans were not happy with these games. Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

One of the main reasons I pitched these game ideas is to address these concerns. I wanted to prove that there are ways to explore Tolkien’s world, to tell different stories in different mediums, without breaking the world he created.

The Point

There’s a middle ground between copying the books verbatim and trying to turn a giant spider into a sex symbol. What bothers me is that it feels like no one is willing to find that middle ground.

Developers don’t seem interested in exploring steampunk Numenor, letting you play as a powerful Elf-Lord, or exploring the lands of Rhun or Harad as the Blue Wizards. It’s that sort of mindset, that timidity that’s keeping us from truly exploring the world of Arda. Meanwhile, many fans seem resistant to anyone expanding the lore in any way.

Look, I get it. I get not wanting to fix what isn’t broken. I get not wanting to risk anyone besmirching Tolkien’s name or ruining his world.

But that’s just it: you can’t ruin Tolkien’s world. It’s a masterpiece. What he created will outlast any spin-off or tie-in game. But think of all the good that can come from these spin-offs. Think of all the ways they can introduce newcomers to the series and allow long-time fans to finally explore the lands of Middle Earth.

There’s room for different interpretations of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Room for developers to explore this world in a way no one has before, to create something different, unique, and worth playing.

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