The Hobbit or “Roll for random treasure”

Last week I have reread The Hobbit for the first time in my adult life. Also, for the first time in the original English: as a kid, I had the now superseded Italian translation published by Adelphi (I wish I had kept it, but I must have lent it to some younger friend in the late 90s). Besides enjoying the book in itself, I was also led to reconsider much of what I had been told with respect to the nature of Middle Earth as a RPG setting. MERP, the classic Middle Earth RPG of my time, has come to be regarded as abysmally bad as an adaptation of Tolkien’s literature. Rightly so? Let us see.

If one tries to sum the book up for the purposes of playing, there is plenty of traveling, both on horse and by foot, foraging, swimming, climbing. Many of such comparatively trivial activities often result in damage and small injuries (Bilbo gets scratches and bruises from climbing a tall tree in Mirkwood, dwarves fall from various heights and get injured). Social interactions are important but generally simple in nature: in particular, reputation and prejudices are paramount (e.g. many people do not like dwarves, but the King under the Mountain rouses popular enthusiasm in Lake-Town). Exploration of both wilderness and dungeons is also prominent. An impredictable array of both mundane and “arcane” treasures is hoarded even by common monsters (the Trolls). Combat does not occur every day, but when it does, it is generally quick and is implied to be quite gruesome. It is also most often fatal. A huge and powerful creature (Smaug the dragon) is killed by one single called shot. Weapons dedicated to Orc-slaying (Glamdring, Orcrist) are especially effective and seem to produce very brutal damage. They also detect the proximity of Orcs by glowing and offer especially flashy visual effects when used to fight them.

Magic spells are often observed, and their effects are quite conspicuous, if not D&D-esque in their magnitude. Gandalf performs a lot of explicit spell casting: various light effects, two killing flashes (directed offensive spells), things are set on fire, smoke is manipulated, some form of disguise and/or misdirection was apparently used at Goblin-Gate (“and there he sat down and worked up the best magic he could“). Magic effects are also performed by the Elvenking: sleep, the doorlock in the great Halls. The dwarves themselves pronounce some ancient spell of concealment on the treasure they have just buried, even though we are not told whether the spell has any power or is a mere ritual.

All of these things are modeled quite nicely by MERP. In fact, better than old-school D&D systems, which had at most a very rudimentary skill system and relied heavily on random tables less detailed and less naturalistic than their MERP counterparts. As I will comment more extensively in future posts, MERP’s rulebook consisted mostly of character creation (both stats and background), rules and tables for combat, physical actions, social actions (the respective attitudes of the peoples toward each other are presented and discussed), traveling (time management, encounters) and foraging (beautiful is the information on herbs). A certain abundance of low-powered magic items has always been criticized as unfaithful to the sources, but in the light of the novel I would not take it for granted: treasures are choked full of ancient weapons, which would count as magical in MERP terms. Physical action, like combat, is dangerous for all the parties involved, and not always effective, like in the novel. Critical hits can kill huge monsters in one single attack, and slaying weapon more so (see above). The magical effects by Gandalf, the elves and the dwarves are all covered by low-to-mid-level spells in the MERP spell lists: e.g., Fire Law, Light Law, Spirit Mastery, Unbarring Ways. Is this the absolute best fit for Middle Earth magic? It cannot be, since it was plainly borrowed from the preexisting generic fantasy Spell Law. But as a whole, it does not seem to be the case that the game system is “pathetic”, or “hilarious” in its reproduction of Tolkien’s novels.

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