They all look the same to me

They all look the same to me

I have begun a new campaign with a new group, playing The One Ring. This is Cubicle 7’s Middle Earth role playing game, which seems to have been broadly well-received and is certainly a thoughtful and beautiful work. We’re playing on Wednesday nights for about 3 hours, and so far we’ve only managed to complete character creation, so I can’t say anything about game play, but I can give a brief description of character creation.

Basically in this game you make three choices: your culture (i.e. race); your “calling” which is some kind of aspect of your character determining things like what skills will advance fastest and (from memory) your vulnerability to the shadow; and your background, which is effectively your character class and further refines some aspects of your character. After this you get 10 points to spend on skills (advancing at 1 point per rank, cumulative), weapon skills (2 points per rank, cumulative) or a few other things. Characters have a bunch of traits that determine aspects of how their personality will affect play (e.g. brave, foolhardy etc) and also some special properties that are determined at one of these three stages. Character creation is relatively quick and involves no dice rolling: in fact nothing about it is random at all.

This character creation system has made some interesting decisions that clearly break with standard RPG character creation practice. In particular:

  • All your starting skill and weapon choices are determined by your race. Your skills are fixed and immutable – every elf or woodman starts with the same set of skills – and you have a choice of just two weapon sets, with no variation. You can use those 10 points to modify these but these 10 points are a tiny portion of the total skill allocation. You start with at least one skill at rank 3, for example, which would require almost all the 10 points to acquire. Effectively your starting abilities are entirely determined by your race
  • Your starting attributes are determined by a combination of race and background. Most backgrounds appear to be similar across the races (I didn’t get a chance to look in detail but e.g. Woodmen and Dwarves both get “Slayer” as a choice) but the attributes will be distributed differently for two races with the same background. For example I have 2/4/7 in the three attributes, while a dwarf might get 4/5/4, for example. You get to add “favour to these” but this favour amounts to just 6 points spread over the three attributes, and is only used under specific conditions, so it’s not the main determinant of your attributes
  • The majority of your starting personality traits are determined by your race. There is a list of perhaps 12, and you can choose two from a sub list of 6 that are specified for your race

Because of the combination of calling and background it is possible for two characters of the same race to differ slightly from each other in outlook, wealth and attributes, but they will essentially have exactly the same skills and almost the same attributes at the start of play. It’s not like D&D where you slightly modify the base random distribution of attributes, and skills are entirely class-based; it’s not like warhammer where attributes have a slightly different base and level of randomness and there are some additional talents. Everything is determined by your race.

What a remarkable coincidence! How amazing that a game that attempts to faithfully recreate the world of Lord of the Rings should choose a character creation system in which your race determines everything that we normally accept as mutable about a character. I have said before that Tolkien’s work is heavy with racial determinism and the race-as-destiny theories of the era in which he wrote, and I have received considerable pushback for it. I have previously adduced as evidence of this Tolkien’s attractiveness to fascists. I’ve also said that his work has undue influence on other fantasy writers and casts a shadow of racialism across the whole hobby. Well, what a surprise then to discover that a game attempting to recreate the world puts this aspect of it at the centre. And in case one were inclined to suspect that this is just a coincidence, here is the creator of the game on this issue:

The main reason behind the majority of the design choices in The One Ring is faithfulness to the sources. In Middle-earth, culture is the main defining element in an individual, and by limiting the choices in that regard help us attain a genuine ‘in-world’ perspective

Notice what that blog post adds: culture determines one’s virtues and rewards. And in this comment, “culture” is simply code for race. In attempting to recreate the world faithfully, anyone who delves into it immediately notices that they need to privilege race over all other aspects of background as a determinant of not just physical attributes but also psychological and moral attributes.

I have skimmed a few reviews of this game and the completely non-random aspect of character creation doesn’t seem to come out as a big issue for anyone. I have a suspicion that if someone tried such a tactic in any other setting their game would be viewed the worse for it, but in this case the game gets a pass. These reviews have generally also talked about how this game really is an immersive Tolkien experience, to the extent that they can’t imagine the system being used for anything else. I can’t give my opinion on that yet, since we haven’t started playing, but it certainly looks like there are many aspects beyond the character creation that imbue the game with a strong Tolkienesque flavour – the special rules for travel and fellowship and the Hope/Shadow mechanic, for example. I’m not sure if I’m going to like the system, but it looks intriguing and possibly very very good (the reviews suggest that people who play it really like it). I’ll review that when I have had a chance to test it.

I guess it’s not obvious from my critical review of Tolkien’s work but I am a real sucker for his world – I love it and have gamed in it extensively using MERP. I think The One Ring could be a vast improvement on MERP and offer exactly the right flavour of gaming that I have been looking for in Tolkien’s rich, detailed and beautiful world. But I go into that world with a clear understanding of what it is – a scientific racist, authoritarian conservative fantasy of a dead past that we can all hope will never come back to life. This game is another example of just how powerful the racial underpinnings of the world are, and how hard it is to genuinely appreciate the world without accepting that aspect of its creation. And I present this game as further evidence of my claim that whether anyone wants to admit it or not, no one can conceive of Tolkien’s world without accepting the deterministic and moralistic nature of his racial heirarchy.

While we enjoy this world and all its descendants, we should also remember that fantasy needs to be about so much more than this, and that while its creative, lyrical and mythical influences on fantasy have been huge and beneficial, the overarching influence of its scientific racism and conservatism have not done this genre – or our gaming world – any favours.