[lord of the rings] - playing Gandalf

edited October 2011 in Story Games
Hey folks!
I've been working on a Tolkien-themed story-game for the past couple of weeks, and I'm writing up procedural text and play advice and so forth.
I'm working on trying to make this a game about telling new stories in the world of Middle-Earth, rather than about retreading the existing novels, movies, etc. Certainly, there's going to be some overlap unless you really make a point of avoiding that, but the point is to use Tolkien's themes and dramatic devices to tell our own stories about honor and justice and loyalty and sacrifice.

That being said, I have a question!
One of the (currently) available options for PCs is that they can be an Istari, one of the wizards of the White Council. I did some digging, and it turns out that the Valar put a ban on wizards trying to rule the Free Peoples; their goal must be to guide, to aid, not to govern. That's why Gandalf doesn't just fix all their problems for them; that's why he uses his mind control powers so sparingly, and so on.
Here's the question: all previous Lord of the Rings games forbidden players from playing Wizards, likely on the grounds that they'd be too powerful. But if that's not so much of a concern, then would playing a Wizard take too much attention away from the struggles and trials of mortal (and Elvish) PCs?

I think it'd be interesting to have the Istari option be available, with some framing in place on how to be responsible to the White Council, the repercussions of abusing one's powers, etc. But it could be like the Jedi and Star Wars - - a lot of the story gets wrapped up in stuff that only really concerns the Jedi, and that's kind of what Star Wars is about. By contrast, the inner lives of Wizards are not at all the focus in Lord of the Rings.
Thoughts?

Comments

  • Zac,
    I think that this question hinges upon whether the Istari appropriately reflect your themes of "honor and justice and loyalty and sacrifice," and I don't believe that allowing players to play Istari would compromise them. There certainly is a lot to mine in playing what amount to angels put in frail forms, forbidden to use their immortal power to solve mortal problems. How do you, knowing you could solve something with tremendous magic, instead find a way to help people help themselves? This would all be very exciting to explore.

    That said, another concern I might have going into a game would be what "playing an Istari" meant. Can I create my own Angel-Wizard? Am I bound to the five Istari mentioned by Tolkien (and I cannot remember whether there were only five ever sent). Playing one of the unnamed wizards sent to the east is certainly different from playing Gandalf himself (or Saruman or Radagast for that matter). Frankly I would be uninterested in playing Gandalf, mostly because I would find it too hard to play against the contraints of his character already set out before me. How do I breathe life into a character that has already been done justice to by Tolkein himself?

    I hope this helps!
  • edited October 2011
    Oh, it's excellent!
    Thanks, Nick! This bit was especially awesome:
    Posted By: Nicholas MooreThere certainly is a lot to mine in playing what amount to angels put in frail forms, forbidden to use their immortal power to solve mortal problems. How do you, knowing you could solve something with tremendous magic, instead find a way to help people help themselves? This would all be very exciting to explore.
    Damn, I should put that on the back cover of this thing, if I ever finish it and print it up ^____^

    That being said, let's answer your question.
    Posted By: Nicholas MooreThat said, another concern I might have going into a game would be what "playing an Istari" meant. Can I create my own Angel-Wizard?
    My instinct is to say, "Yes. But it's not that you can; rather, you must. Precisely to avoid all the baggage that accompanies playing well-known, well-established characters, I think I'm going to have every campaign of this game make up their own Istari as needed. I think I'll play up their divinity, and frame them as being a choir of divine beings that straddle two worlds - - and their earthly identities just aren't all that important.

    Maybe do it like this: for starters, when you begin a new campaign, the whole group discusses where the timeline should start. Everything beyond that point is erased from the "lore" (the movies, books, etc.) and we pretend like it is completely unwritten, precisely so we have enough creative breathing room to write over it in the course of play.
    Second thing: the Istari themselves only remember/know the mortal names of those Istari whom they are currently working with, or have worked with before. When the mortals coming 'round in need of a Wizard ask, "Say, where's that fellow in the blue hat? Tall chap, likes to smoke? Surely you Wizards all know each other," the player playing an Istari can cheerfully reply, "Sorry, don't know him. I can be of help, though,"
    (all the while, he's privately thinking, "Bloody hell, you grubby mortals, I can't tell half of you apart from the rest! Now, if you were radiant beacons of heavenly power, I could tell one face from another. Hang on - give me a drawing of this blue-hat-fellow's Kyrian aura, would you? That'd be something, at least.)

    I think I want to really play up the otherworldly perspective of the Istari. Hey, how amusing would it be if they actually had to concentrate hard to tell their own kind from mortals? Maybe the Wizards take the shapes of old, long-bearded men so they can at least narrow it down a bit. Ha!

    Seriously, though, this helps a lot!

    EDIT: Crap! I didn't answer your question! What I meant to say was, "When you start a new campaign, you come up with names, themes, and personalities for any Istari that are encountered. They will be Wizards, like we're used to, but they are not Gandalf or Saruman or Radagast or any of them. They are the particular Istari that were sent to Arda in THIS version of the tales, more importantly in YOUR version of the tales!"
    Yes.... excellent.
  • Zac,
    Glad to be of service! I agree with your approach, it certainly solves the problems I addressed of constraint. A couple of further questions:

    I assume one can play the myriad mortal (and as you distinguished, aptly, elven) peoples of the Middle-Earth. Can you play the Valar? How about other Maiar who interacted in mortal affairs, like Sauron? Could I, for instance, say that I wanted to play a Maia who took on a guise other than a wizard to walk among the peoples of Middle-Earth?

    Also, what you say about:

    Posted By: Zac in VirginiaMaybe do it like this: for starters, when you begin a new campaign, the whole group discusses where the timeline should start. Everything beyond that point is erased from the "lore" (the movies, books, etc.) and we pretend like it is completely unwritten, precisely so we have enough creative breathing room to write over it in the course of play.

    is very interesting. I've always had some difficulty with Middle-Earth as a setting: either feeling too constrained by what's been written, or feeling as though the only stories left to tell are unimportant; after all, the goods ones have been written.

    Your idea of ignoring cannon beyond the point in time the game is started shows the potential to overcome this problem (which I suspect I'm not alone in?). I would love to hear more about the game's techniques (now, and as it develops), to see how you maintain the essence of Tolkien outside of Tolkien's cannon.
  • I'm interested in this too. My planned approach for my TOR campaign is to say that everything in The Hobbit is more or less true (although Bilbo is perhaps a somewhat unreliable narrator, given how incompetent the dwarves seem to be). But only the broadest sweeps of The Silmarillion can be relied upon, and nothing in LotR is guaranteed at all beyond the basic geography of Middle-Earth.

    So Bilbo really did find a magical ring that confers invisibility. No guarantees about it being the One Ring, however. Moria is indeed empty of dwarves for some reason, but you'll have to go there to find out what that reason is. And for sure everyone agrees that Smaug was killed by an arrow from Bard the Bowman. May or may not be the case.

    And the biggie - who is the Necromancer?? It's all up for grabs.
  • Was Gandalf really that powerful? He was a diplomat and a negotiator and had strings to pull with the king of eagles or something like that. I remember some water bending and protecting the party from the balrog, but nothing too proactive. He also had a badass horse I seem to remember.
  • He fought the Balrog, a Maiar spirit (same order of magnitude as Sauron) hand-to-hand, and eventually threw him off a mountain-top to kill him. He held off the Nazgul from attacking Faramir, could maybe face down the Witch-King under the right circumstances (that one wasn't quite resolved), and blew up quite a few goblins in The Hobbit, among other things. He also managed to get in and out of Dol Guldur to contact Thráin and discover Sauron completely undetected, which can't have been easy. I agree that overt power is something he seemed to avoid, but he was pretty capable.
  • edited October 2011
    Nicholas,
    If you're up for a somewhat disorganized text file, I can send that your way!

    One thing that seems like a good idea is "birthrights" - - a bit like starting Moves in AW , and each one confers a social status/rank, and possibly a relationship or faction-affiliation that ties the character into the world and helps contribute to a group-created starting situation.

    My favorite thus far is for humans: "Blood of Kings: You are d4th in line for the throne."

    As far as contributing to that Tolkien "feel", I'm going to bet the farm and guess that making characters that fit into Middle-Earth societies, with a world map in front of you, will do a lot to establish the right mood.
  • Zac,
    I'd love the file! I'm not sure if my email is listed on the site, send it along to nolivermoore@gmail.com. If you'd like feedback/workshoping/criticism, let me know, otherwise I'd just like to read it.

    Ivan,
    To expand upon Dave's info, I believe Gandalf was not the most powerful of the Istari, but certainly the most knowledgeable. If you parse his magic into dnd terms, its amusing: he casts light, shield, and some kind of shatter spell (thats a dnd spell, yeah? Its been awhile).
  • Posted By: Nicholas MooreThere certainly is a lot to mine in playing what amount to angels put in frail forms, forbidden to use their immortal power to solve mortal problems. How do you, knowing you could solve something with tremendous magic, instead find a way to help people help themselves? This would all be very exciting to explore.
    This is the only LOTR roleplaying game I ever want to play. And I want to play it. A lot.
  • Posted By: Hans c-oThis is the only LOTR roleplaying game I ever want to play. And I want to play it. A lot.
    :D Me too! Now to pull it off...

    @Nick: I'll send it your way. And critique and feedback are desired, thanks!
  • Posted By: ivanWas Gandalf really that powerful?
    Yeah, he was wicked powerful. He also held one of the three Elven Rings (Narya, the Ring of Fire, given to him by Círdan). Narya had the power to stir the hearts of mortals to resist tyranny, dominion, and despair. It is probable that Gandalf uses the ring to restore Theoden King from his apathetic cynicism in the second book.
    Posted By: Nicholas MooreTo expand upon Dave's info, I believe Gandalf was not the most powerful of the Istari, but certainly the most knowledgeable.
    He was the most powerful according to the judgement of Eru Ilúvatar, but also the least confident of the Istari.. Originally he was going to be sent down as Gandalf the White, to guide the other Istari. He refused begged Eru to send his brother (Saruman) instead. Eru agreed.
    Posted By: Dave HallettHe fought the Balrog, a Maiar spirit (same order of magnitude as Sauron) hand-to-hand, and eventually threw him off a mountain-top to kill him.
    Balrogs are of the same order of spirits as Sauron, but nowhere near him in power. He was one of the first; created by Eru himself. The Balrogs were lesser creations of Melkor. Incidentally, the Istari are also Maiar, but among the weaker members of that order.

    ***

    Sorry, not trying to be a jerk! Please consider all my statements as my personal opinions, as I am typing what I know from memory. I just like to discuss Lord of the Rings; it brings a warmth to my heart that is hard to come by as I get older. Cheers guys, make cool shit!
  • I was trying to troll just a little bit. Of course I grew up wanting to be Gandalf :-)
    In retrospective though it is not clear how he didn't use some of his minor powers (let's say.. for transportation!) to make life easier for the Fellowship.
  • @Ivan: he was sworn to only aid, but neither govern nor rule, the Free Peoples. Dunno if that applies to your question, but it's a thing.
    Also, in The Hobbit, Gandalf is very transparently a sort of helper/Mary Sue figure on whom the other characters depend a great deal, and they're always annoyed when he has to run off and do Wizard stuff. So there's an element in there of, "Oh, really? Hm. Why can't you help us, really? "
  • Posted By: ivanI was trying to troll just a little bit. Of course I grew up wanting to be Gandalf :-)
    Who among us did not? If not Gandalf, then Galadriel. :D
  • Posted By: framweardIf not Gandalf, then Galadriel. :D
    Or Eowyn! ^___^

    When she and ... Merry? are on horseback together, awaiting the charge with the Riders of Rohan, and she scrunches up her face like, "Aw, shit I might be about to die!" and then King Theoden yells and raises his sword....
    She yells too. And when she does, I have to grab the tissues. Every damn time! "Why cannot he fight for those he loves?" Whew. Powerful stuff!
  • edited November 2011
    Hi,
    I haven't had time to read the whole thread (in a rush at the moment) but here's something:

    If you're playing one of the Istari, your central conflict is against yourself. Specifically, can you stick to your mission without being corrupted? Saruman gets corrupted by power, Radagast by his love of nature, and Gandalf comes very very close to being corrupted by comfort (that whole time he neglected to notice that Bilbo had the One Ring, while he's goofing off making fireworks. As Saruman says, his love of the halflings' weed has indeed dulled his mind, in a manner of speaking).

    So, yeah. That needs to go in there.

    EDITED TO ADD:
    It's worth noting that the things that corrupt the Istari aren't necessarily bad or evil. The important thing is that they're not the flippin' mission.
  • Posted By: Zac in VirginiaI'm working on trying to make this a game about telling new stories in the world of Middle-Earth, rather than about retreading the existing novels, movies, etc. Certainly, there's going to be some overlap unless you really make a point of avoiding that, but the point is to use Tolkien's themes and dramatic devices to tell our own stories about honor and justice and loyalty and sacrifice.
    Out of curiosity, if your primary interest is the themes why are you using the setting as a starting point? In my own Epic Fantasy game I decided to make the setting a player-generated run-time thing with the themes and plot structure built into the game since I'm of the opinion that it's hard to tell more than one Epic Fantasy story in the same setting since it's so easy to get fixated on the already established story.
    Posted By: framweardIt is probable that Gandalf uses the ring to restore Theoden King from his apathetic cynicism in the second book.
    Maybe I should reread it to be sure, but I was always under the impression that Gandalf only used his magic to get Theoden's attention in that scene, and then just talked to Theoden to get him to stop moping around. Basically, Wormtongue had used words to poison the king's mind, but Gandalf was able to convince Theoden to put all the self-doubt, etc., aside by reminding him that he was still a good person at the core. One of the things I disliked about the LOTR movies is that they made Theoden's transformation an explicitly magical thing, which I thought undercut the whole point of how insidious Wormtongue was and how he had been able to take Rohan out of the fight by being super weaselly and understanding that words have power.
  • Posted By: Dan MaruschakOne of the things I disliked about the LOTR movies is that they made Theoden's transformation an explicitly magical thing, which I thought undercut the whole point of how insidious Wormtongue was and how he had been able to take Rohan out of the fight by being super weaselly and understanding that words have power.

    I agree entirely. Re-imagining Gandalf's skill as a negotiator (and his position as a known/feared? personality) as a feat of magic certainly belittled both Gandalf and Wormtounge. That said, I believe there's something about (Narya? Is that the name of his ring?) having the power to rekindle the fire in Men's souls...so maybe it helped, albeit subtly?



    Posted By: Marshall Burns
    It's worth noting that the things that corrupt the Istari aren't necessarily bad or evil. The important thing is that they'renot the flippin' mission.

    I might analyze this as saying that they are all corrupted/nearly corrupted by Middle-Earth itself. Saruman loves power and the enemy, but one might argue that that is a facet of Middle-Earth, as much as comfort or nature. The Istari are not the Valar, but they did help make the world, and lived in the west. When they are confronted by the mortal-ish facets of the world, it only makes sense that they might be tempted. I think you rightfully identify a powerful theme, in that the Istari need to struggle against being waylaid by what they were sent to save.

    Posted By: Dan MaruschakOut of curiosity, if your primary interest is the themes why are you using the setting as a starting point? In my ownEpic Fantasy gameI decided to make the setting a player-generated run-time thing with the themes and plot structure built into the game since I'm of the opinion that it's hard to tell more than one Epic Fantasy story in the same setting since it's so easy to get fixated on the already established story.


    I agree that getting fixated on setting is a danger, especially when the setting is as detailed as Tolkein. Furthermore, the setting and the plot of Tolkein mesh so well that there is a danger of, in embracing the setting, failing to not embrace the plot you know. I certainly think that Zac could extract the themes he has identified and talked about, and use them to make a Tolkeinesque game without a prescribed setting. However the difficulty of playing around Tolkein, or someone like him, is fascinating; I think efforts in system to promote an established, but unconstrained, setting are worthwhile and interesting.

    Dan, do you have any examples of how telling more than one story in a setting went south? I'd be interested to hear them.
  • Posted By: Nicholas MooreDan, do you have any examples of how telling more than one story in a setting went south? I'd be interested to hear them.
    Not in the sense of trying it and failing -- mostly I know it would be a problem for me so I steer clear of the situation. I tend to be a bit obsessive about things, so I usually get really hung up on not wanting to copy something exactly, but also not making a change merely for the sake of distancing the story from the original (This time, the Dark Lord isn't in Mordor!), and those dual constraints I put on myself create such a shadow over everything that I can't get comfortable enough to contribute to a fresh story. I think it's certainly possible to do other types of stories in the Middle Earth setting, but I personally would find it really hard to do a Middle Earth story that's of the same scope as Lord of the Rings without doing either Lord of the Rings or a story that was only meaningful as a commentary on Lord of the Rings. (I could probably go on and on about this kind of stuff, since I though about it a lot when I was trying to capture the spirit of Tolkien in my own game, but I don't want to derail Zac's thread).
  • Posted By: Dan MaruschakPosted By: Nicholas MooreDan, do you have any examples of how telling more than one story in a setting went south? I'd be interested to hear them.
    Not in the sense of trying it and failing -- mostly I know it would be a problem for me so I steer clear of the situation. I tend to be a bit obsessive about things, so I usually get really hung up on not wanting to copy something exactly, but also not making a change merely for the sake of distancing the story from the original (This time, the Dark Lordisn'tin Mordor!), and those dual constraints I put on myself create such a shadow over everything that I can't get comfortable enough to contribute to a fresh story. I think it's certainly possible to do other types of stories in the Middle Earth setting, but I personally would find it really hard to do a Middle Earth story that's of the same scope as Lord of the Rings without doing either Lord of the Rings or a story that was only meaningful as a commentary on Lord of the Rings. (I could probably go on and on about this kind of stuff, since I though about it a lot when I was trying to capture the spirit of Tolkien in my own game, but I don't want to derail Zac's thread).

    If you want to go on and on about it, I'm all ears for another thread!
  • Posted By: Hans c-oIf you want to go on and on about it, I'm all ears for another thread!
    I started a new thread: Established Settings and Established Stories.
  • edited November 2011
    Posted By: Dan MaruschakMaybe I should reread it to be sure, but I was always under the impression that Gandalf only used his magic to get Theoden's attention in that scene, and then just talked to Theoden to get him to stop moping around. Basically, Wormtongue had used words to poison the king's mind, but Gandalf was able to convince Theoden to put all the self-doubt, etc., aside by reminding him that he was still a good person at the core. One of the things I disliked about the LOTR movies is that they made Theoden's transformation an explicitly magical thing, which I thought undercut the whole point of how insidious Wormtongue was and how he had been able to take Rohan out of the fight by being super weaselly and understanding that words have power.
    I don't think he used his magic, but I think his ability to persuade was enhance by Narya? He did a lot of such persuasion, and I don't think it's meant to be coincidental that he had the Elven Ring of Fire. At that point I think the Eye's attention was not focused on Gandalf's doings (since the last Sauron knew Gandalf had perished in Moria), so he could risk using the ring from time to time. Galadriel used her ring to create Loth Lorien without repercussion, but that was before Sauron regained his shape.

    And I agree with you about the movies. I really don't like them at all.

    Posted By: Marshall BurnsIf you're playing one of the Istari, your central conflict is against yourself. Specifically, can you stick to your mission without being corrupted? Saruman gets corrupted by power, Radagast by his love of nature, and Gandalf comes very very close to being corrupted by comfort (that whole timehe neglected to notice that Bilbo had the One Ring, while he's goofing off making fireworks. As Saruman says, his love of the halflings' weed has indeed dulled his mind, in a manner of speaking).
    Fuckin' A.
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