Lord of the Rings: A Master Class in Campaign BuildingEvery GM dreams of that magnum opus campaign, the one that's so epic it's unlike anything they've done before, which people will talk about for years, and which they'll never top again. That campaign that's epic in scope, that's rich in the world you've built, with fully-realized characters and deep, instense storylines that your players will never forget.
In short, every GM dreams of running their own Lord of the Rings.
And yet, a lot of people have discussed over the years how Lord of the Rings doesn't work as a proper fantasy role playing campaign. It's too divided in its stories. The goal is too big. It doesn't allow proper dressing of in-game party dynamics. The characters are too level-diverse. Gandalf is only 5th level (a claim dating back to the old Dragon Magazine, and entirely ludicrous and unsustainable if you have a tiny bit of brain cells).
Here's the truth: Lord of the Rings is a master class in a role playing game campaign, both in its novel and its film versions. Indeed, it's particularly salient to an old school style of play, where "game balance" meant "everyone's having fun," as opposed to, "everyone's of the exact same power level." Let's take a look at how it all begins with The Fellowship of the Ring, where it goes when the party splits in The Two Towers, and how this epic game comes back together in the finale of Return of the King.
What to Expect from This SeriesNote that I'll be assuming a largely old school sensibility in this series, for a couple of reasons. First, this blog was begun as an old-school focused blog, so it's appropriate. Second, because old-school gaming has become something of a curse word to the younger generation, and that's a shame. There's nothing wrong with newer school games full of player agency and sandbox style play; I run a number of these games myself. However, there are important lessons to be learned from an old school approach, and Lord of the Rings demonstrates these beautifully. I hope that people will read this with an open mind, to that end, and take away the same ideas that I have.
Indeed, Lord of the Rings is not only a master class in building a campaign for the GM; it's also a master class in how to play in a game with a disparate group of heroes of different levels, without making stupid decisions, and with a focus on, as a player, moving the story forward.
I should note that I'm not going to spend much time on mechanics, here, as that gets boring and is easily bogged down. Rather, I'll focus on general themes--how the game plays out, when new characters come in, how they don't overshadow lower-level heroes, and the kind of campaign that a fantasy RPG once meant.
Finally, this is about building a home campaign for your game. It discusses bringing in new players, splitting the group and other important issues home games face. It's not about writing professional RPG campaigns, which have an wholly different set of expectations.
Let's take a look at how it all breaks down.
Fellowship of the Ring: Building the Campaign
The first volume in LotR, The Fellowship of the Ring, is an outstanding example of building a campaign, particularly in starting small and building to the large, as well as admitting characters of diverse power levels into a game at different times. Let's look at it the way it's laid out.
It begins at the eleventy-first birthday party of Bilbo Baggins, a former PC in a prior campaign, now turned NPC. Bilbo's former player (or a close friend or relative) has decided to portray his descendant, Frodo, in this upcoming campaign. The campaign is built largely around Frodo at the beginning--let's say that it was Frodo's player who approached the DM, saying, "Remember that old Hobbit game you ran? Man, that was awesome. Can we revisit that world?"
Other players are recruited. At first, the DM envisions a very hobbit-centric campaign, hoping to recapture the magic of the original game. So our group consists of four hobbits: Frodo, Merry, Sam and Pippin. A fifth player joins, rolling up a fifth hobbit, Fatty Bolger. He's new to the hobby, though, and seems to be only half-interested. The adventure is set on its path by another favorite NPC of the GM: Gandalf the Grey, a powerful "wizard," an angelic figure in his Middle Earth setting with great power but limited ability to act in the world, placed upon him by divine mandate.
Stage One: The Departure
Stage one sets the theme for the campaign and establishes the MacGuffin: Bilbo passes his heirloom magic ring to Frodo, but Gandalf arrives 17 years later with grim news: the ring is an artifact of pure evil; its master, thought long dead, has returned and sent powerful servants after the ring. Frodo must get out of the Shire and make his way to the village of Bree, where Gandalf will meet him to discuss their next steps.
The hobbits make plans to leave, with only Frodo and Sam aware of the reason they're taking off, and Merry and Pippin tagging along out of loyalty and a thirst for adventure. Fatty's player drops out or vanishes from the group at this time, so he's left behind.
On the road to Bree, they have a number of side adventures, including encountering an angry willow tree, visiting the house of the godlike Bombadil and Goldberry (whom they discover are not swayed by the power of the ring at all), and the Barrow-Wight, where they gain their first swords. They also encounter the Nazgul for the first time, and the DM skillfully navigates an encounter where the goal is to flee, rather than fight. The erstwhile heroes make it to Bree.
Adding New Players
At some point, other friends of the DM have heard of his campaigns and expressed interest in joining. One in particular is an old friend with a character from another game long ago--a ranger named Strider. The ranger is higher level than the hobbits, but the GM has some powerful foes in mind and figures it could help him to run a more epic campaign.
So he sits down with Strider's player and outlines the following: Strider has a legacy that will be unveiled through the course of the game, a secondary story focus, and currently he's been sent by Gandalf to intercept the Hobbits, as the wizard has been waylaid. Strider is concerned about Gandalf, who was supposed to meet him here, but he's been left explicit instructions that if the wizard doesn't arrive, he should take the hobbits and get out of Dodge.
Strider's introduction adds an element of mystery and thrill to the game. At first the players are a bit uncomfortable with their second-level fighters (Merry and Pippin), ranger (Sam) and rogue/thief (Frodo) risking playing second-fiddle to the higher level hero, but as it turns out the main storyline is still focused on them, with the high-level hero adding a bit more muscle to keep things engaging as they travel along the road.
A few more side adventures occur, and this section culminates at Weathertop and the chase to the Ford, where the hobbits get their first real taste of combat. Frodo's player sees his character near-fatally stabbed, which leads the GM to have to think on his feet; thus the introduction of Glorfindel (or Arwen if you're doing the movie version).
The Party Grows
By now the game has been going on for a few months and the players are talking about it. More interest has come in, and the GM decides he can handle a few more players. It so happens that some more friends from his old campaign have come back to town, and they're interested in bringing their characters in, since Strider got to do so. He looks over their sheets, makes a few tweaks for balance, and discusses revised character histories for the new campaign setting. Thus, at the Council of Elrond we end up with the dwarven fighter Gimli, the human fighter Boromir and the elven ranger Legolas. The group is low on spell casters, but the three rangers can fill that role well enough, and the GM decides to send Gandalf along as a babysitter and info-dump NPC as needed.
Frodo awakens and gets to see Bilbo again, now aged, and discovers what the corruption of the ring has done to his uncle. He also is gifted Sting and the Mithril shirt. Arwen makes her first appearance here, and there's a brief flashback about a budding romance between her and Aragorn. The GM leaves this open for future development (in the film version this is more heavily detailed).
We now see the Council of Elrond, where the real end game is revealed, the new heroes are introduced, and Strider's true name (Aragorn) and history are unveiled. He gains the sword Anduril, forged from the shards of Narsil. At the council, each of the new players delivers a rousing speech that gives everyone an instant and solid hold on their personality. Gandalf tells his tale in an info dump for the players about how the great Saruman the White has betrayed them, and Elrond, the NPC elf lord tasks them with their mission: to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom.
The heroes set out, a gaming group of eight players and DM, and a Fellowship of the Ring consisting of nine members (eight players and a GM).
The Story Builds
More adventures take place, now. The heroes travel through the Mines of Moria, where they battle orcs in the tomb of Balin, and get to take on a few heroic-level enemies. Gandalf is lost battling a Balrog (a scene the GM planned out to remove Gandalf and shake the group to their core, forcing them to go it alone for awhile before a planned triumphant return in the future). The heroes have to flee an overwhelming number of goblins and barely escape the mines alive, the daylight holding their foes at bay.
There are just enough foes of varying levels that all the players get the opportunity to shine in the battle with their own abilities, and the hobbits having Sting, the mithril armor, and the barrow-wight weapons helps slightly to balance them with the higher level heroes. The hobbits in particular make outstanding use of their unerring accuracy with thrown weapons during the fight.
They journey to Lothlorien, not far off, where they can take a safe respite from the orc threat, heal up, and seek advice from the powerful NPCs Galadriel and Celeborn before continuing on their journey. Here we have the scenes with Galadriel's pool, the gifts of the elves and others, before the heroes set out again.
Fracturing the Fellowship
During this time, the GM has randomly decided that Boromir is prone to corruption by the ring. His player has been rolling regular saves vs. wand (or wisdom/charisma saves, depending on your game), and he's failed as many as he's made. He's been twitchy, showing elements of darkness, really playing it up well. The GM knows this is likely to end badly for the hero so he makes some provisions in his notes.
It also comes out during this time that peoples' schedules are changing. Frodo and Sam's players are no longer able to play on Saturday and favor moving the game to Mondays. The other half are content sticking with Saturday and can't play on Monday. Worse, the players for Merry and Pippin's players need to duck out for awhile, but hope to be able to come back soon when things calm down for them a bit.
The GM has a conundrum, but knows just how to deal with it. He pulls the hobbit players aside and tells them that a tipping point is coming in the game, where they will have an opportunity to leave, temporarily or permanently. He informs them that he is going to split the game into two groups, one who will play on Mondays, and the other which will stay on Saturdays. There's an opportunity for Merry and Pippin to duck out for a bit, during which time, if they want, they can get together on the side here and there to discuss what's going on with their characters (or in modern games, they can handle it via email). Everyone agrees.
The heroes, escaping Lothlorien, are pursued by a small army of orcs. Here we see the fracturing of the fellowship; Boromir fails his save against the Ring and tries to take it from Frodo, who just narrowly escapes. A massive battle takes place, and Boromir sacrifices his life in redemption for his action, trying to save Merry and Pippin, who are captured by orcs, while Sam and Frodo escape.
Boromir dies in Aragorn's arms, and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas swear to track down Merry and Pippin, who are in the most immediate danger. They wish Frodo and Sam well, hoping that they can provide a decoy for the hobbits to safely reach Mordor.
And the first book of the campaign comes to a close. The players are sad that the group is fracturing, but really excited about what's coming in the future.
Breaking it Down
Now, here's where things split from older groups to modern groups. We would all agree that gaming is a hobby, but once upon a time it was a very time consuming, all encompassing hobby. If you were a GM, you were a world-builder. You put hours and hours of time into your games, building the world, the characters that inhabited it, the cultures, the nations, even the geography and weather. You were really not much different than Prof. Tolkien.
You were also willing to put extra days into playing. Many groups in the 70s and 80s played every single day, for a few hours a day. It wasn't uncommon for a GM to have multiple parties adventuring in different places in their world at different times; the original AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide even has a sectioin on tracking time for different parties in your world.
It also was not uncommon for parties to be played with characters of wildly diverse experience levels. Those of lower levels would participate as they could, being given chances to shine by the GM; they would also level up faster than the higher level characters, whose job it was to keep them alive as that happened, so the level gap would close.
So that's exactly what we see here. The game starts with a bunch of first-level hobbits, but the GM has something much bigger in mind. His old friend and his existing character Strider open the door to some of that, allowing for greater challenges and more rapid advancement for the hobbits under the protection of Strider. The addition of Legolas, Gimli and Boromir fills the same role, basically giving us two full parties--a mid-high level one and a mid-low level one (as by now the hobbits are roughly 3rd-4th level). The GM carefully structures encounters moving forward to allow both parties equal chances to shine, while building character backgrounds and details in the shadow of a massive, epic quest.
Then something unfortunate happens that every GM among us has experienced: the party splits, not in game terms, but in real life terms. Life gets in the way, and people can't do what they once could. It works out, though, that the GM can manage another group with the people who are no longer available on Saturday (which happen to be the original players). He decides to split the campaign into two storylines and opens up another session on Mondays, while giving Merry and Pippin a neat and hopefully temporary out.
Next up, we'll see where the game progresses with the two divergent groups, as we look at how The Two Towers is a master class in running two simultaneous campaigns in the same world.