Welcome to part two of our look at how Lord of the Rings offers us a master class in creating and running an epic campaign in the old-school style for your home game. In part one we looked at how the campaign starts simple and grows through side adventures and the addition of new players, and how it deals with divergent character levels by allowing for foes of different abilities and giving all players a chance to shine despite their relative level of power. It also deals with what happens when people's schedules change and the game needs to divide.
It also touched upon the commitment that a GM puts into their campaign, how there's a ton of planning and time put into it, and admittedly it faces issues that some people have difficulty facing: those of simple time. You may not have the time to deal with the issues that come up in your life as they appear in this series, and if that's the case, there's nothing wrong with that. Not everyone has the kind of time to create new gaming groups and play several times a week.
This blog doesn't offer solutions to that issue, as it would be impossible to address everyone's individual lifestyle. All it seeks to do is present an hypothetical situation towards how a story like The Lord of the Rings could be run, and work very well, all other things considered equal.
In this blog we'll move on to part 2: The Two Towers. The theme here is running variant groups of gamers in the same campaign world, roughly simultaneously in time, and how one group's actions could affect the others.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that yes, I realize in the novels Boromir's death comes at the beginning of The Two Towers, but I have chosen to move it to where it occurs in the films because it creates a solid symmetry in terms of the RPG campaign structure.
The Two Towers: Setting up the Next Stage
When we last left our heroes, the Fellowship had fractured, largely due to life and scheduling reasons. Merry and Pippin's players had to drop out of weekly play, but agreed to keep in touch in hopes they could jump back in eventually. Frodo and Sam's players had moved to Monday, and had left alone with the Ring, heading for Mount Doom. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli's players had sworn to track down Merry and Pippin, and run interference for Sam and Frodo in the process by making some noise to draw the attention of the Enemy. Boromir had died.
What had begun as a straightforward quest has now, of necessity, turned into a very nuanced game with multiple storylines and multiple adventuring parties. No longer is the GM planning a straight quest to Mordor; now he's dealing with two major story paths.
His first step is to sit down with Boromir's player and decide what comes next. Boromir's player already has an idea. What if, he says, he plays Boromir's brother Faramir, who in many ways is even nobler than Boromir, but is something of a black sheep of the family.
The GM thinks this a great idea, and says, in reward for the way he played Boromir, this new character will have an uncommon resistance to the temptation of the Ring. He'll also be the leader of an elite group of warriors from Minas Tirith. Both the player and the GM that these will be rangers. the GM has an idea, though, and wonders if it's possible for this new character to debut on Mondays and potentially move to Saturdays down the road? The player is, fortunately, flexible in his schedule and agrees.
It may be awhile, the GM cautions, before Faramir can debut, so he asks the player if he would be willing to portray some rotating NPCs in the meanwhile. The player is amicable to this arrangement. He's even available to show up to both groups if need be, to act as a bridge where necessary.
A Note about Player Flexibility: some readers might find the flexibility of Boromir/Faramir's player to be stretching things a bit. To them I reply, I've had plenty of gaming groups where multiple players were involved in different groups throughout the week, and attended all. Different people have different levels of flexibility. In addition, once again in the old days RPGs were a more time-consuming and all-encompassing hobby (something that played a role in people's concern about it in the early 80s).
However, for those who find this unrelatable, it's equally possible that the GM finds people who are new gamers eager to try it out for a bit, or who can't always be counted on to make it, so they're given one or more of these NPC characters.
Party One: The Treason of Isengard
Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas sage an impromptu funeral for Boromir, sending him down the Anduin, and head off to track the orcs and uruk-hai who have taken Merry and Pippin captive. They have a few skirmishes before they encounter the Riders of Rohan, led by the NPC cavalier Eomer, played temporarily by Boromir's former player. Eomer informs the heroes that the night before, the riders had encountered a pack of orcs--the same ones Aragorn and Legolas had been tracking via their ranger abilities--and had slaughtered all of them.
Just as all hope seems lost, Aragorn finds a set of small, bootless tracks--the tracks of hobbits--leading into Fangorn Forest. Following this session, Faramir's player departs for the Monday group (see below).
Tracking the hobbits, they catch glimpses of an old man who makes their horses bolt. They assume this to be Saruman and take caution. As the GM builds mood and tension, the heroes are about to burst, when suddenly, they encounter the old man, who turns out to be the resurrected Gandalf, now Gandalf the White. To get the group back on track, Gandalf informs them that Merry and Pippin are free of the orcs and quite safe, and their paths will cross again one day. But for now, they must make for Rohan, where dark forces are afoot.
Meanwhile, the story of Merry, Pippin and the Ents has played out on the side, with the GM communicating via phone, email, snail mail, on lunch breaks or whenever they can get together, with Merry and Pippin's players.
They make their way to Edoras, where they find Theoden deep under the spell of Saruman, via the posoned words of Grima Wormtongue. They also discover that Eomer has been imprisoned as a traitor. As the group holds off the royal guard in nonlethal combat, they witness Gandalf free Theoden from the enchantment in an awesome display of power, further hammering home his change following resurrection.
Grima is expelled, and Theoden orders Eomer freed (in the movie version, Eomer has been exiled as opposed to imprisoned, and will arrive later) and named as heir. A funeral is held for the king's son, who it is revealed fell in battle.
A few side adventures ensue wherein the heroes gather some scattered Rohirrim, encounter refugees from the Isen Fords, and ride with the host of Rohan to the Hornburg. This section of the campaign, for this group, comes to a climax during the Battle of Helm's Deep, with the departure of Gandalf and his return with the Huorns of Fangorn Forest and exiled Rohirrim led by Erkenbrand at his back (and in the film version, the exiled Rohirrim led by Eomer).
Another new character makes their appearance here, as a friend wishes to try out role playing and asks if there's space in any of the groups. This becomes Eowyn. As Eowyn's player learns the rules, she (or he) engages mostly in role play, not yet being comfortable with the mechanics of combat, but continually voices her desire to win renown in battle and excel as a strong woman in a world of men.
This also provides an opportunity to flesh out Aragorn's back story, which the GM allows to play out naturally, wishing to let Aragorn's player define his path, and being okay with adapting to revelations as they come (he trusts Aragorn's player). He makes notes about the developing relationship and notes that Aragorn's player seems to have determined his prior relationship with Arwen (hinted at iin Rivendell during an earlier session) is deep and abiding.
The battle of Helm's Deep is run in two fashions: with a massive miniatures battle game (because the GM hasn't yet determined the outcome at this stage), and interludes featuring heroic actions by the individual heroes. These interludes, the GM decides, will have a direct effect on the battle in terms of bonuses to morale, attack and defense values on either side. During this section of the game, Legolas and Gimli's players dive in full bore and develop a surprising comeraderie between their heroes, something unheard of between dwarves and elves.
Following the battle, the epilogue of this section occurs as the group heads for the Isen River.
Upon arriving, they discover Treebeard and the Ents, and are reunited with Merry and Pippin (whose players have requested to rejoin the game), and are told the tale of how the Ents destroyed Isengard (Merry and Pippin's players do such a good job that the GM awards them bonus XP for the retelling). The group then treats with Saruman, who refuses Gandalf's offer to repent and redeem himself. Saruman's staff is broken, he is robbed of his angelic power, and he is banished along with Wormtongue, who hurls a palantir at Pippin, which Gandalf takes away, much to Pippin's player's consternation. He manages to look into the device, and sees the Eye of Sauron within. Fortunately, he succeeds on his Saving Throw and emerges largely unscathed from the experience.
The appearance of a Nazgul overhead indicates that full-scale war is coming and will soon cover the world. Gandalf entrusts Aragorn with the palantir and the group decides that it's time to marshall Rohan's forces and head for Minas Tirith, which is most certainly under siege by now.
Party Two: The Ring Goes East
Meanwhile, on Mondays, Sam and Frodo head South with the Ring towards Mordor. They capture Gollum, temporarily played by Faramir's player, and with an agenda to mislead them and steal the ring for himself. Surprisingly to all involved, Frodo's player opts to show pity towards Gollum, and the NPC takes an interesting turn, reverting to his Smeagol persona, promising to guide them to Mordor and leading them through the Dead Marshes. Yet, he still portrays the split personality and obsession with the ring, muttering to himself about wanting to take it, and letting someone he mentions only as "She" kill the hobbits since he is bound by a promise.
He persuades the hobbits not to try to enter through the Black Gate, and offers to lead them on a secret path to a sort of back entrance into Mordor. Wary, but trusting of his promise, they agree. This leads the group into Ithilien, where Faramir makes his first appearance. Frodo (the character) learns of Boromir's death, and the existence of the Ring and the plan to destroy it are revealed. Faramir allows the hobbits to leave after Frodo negotiates Gollum's release, understanding the importance of their mission (in the film version, the side journey to Osgiliath occurs during this time).
Faramir's player now exits the Monday game and returns to the Saturday group. Gollum reverts to being an NPC, and leads Frodo and Sam past Minas Morgul where they witness the Witch King lead his army towards Minas Tirith, and into Cirith Ungol where they face Shelob and Frodo once again is mortally wounded. Sam grabs Sting and the Ring, puts the Ring on (and succeeds at his saving throw against its corruption) and follows the orcs to Cirith Ungol to rescue Frodo.
And the GM calls a close to this section of the adventure.
How it Breaks Down
In this section we see how the GM deals with the splitting of the group into two, and how he faces the challenge of replacing a deceased character. It is, in many ways, representative of some of the most difficult challenges any GM can face. Your party is split, you're facing losing players, you need to create extra time to handle multiple parties, and somehow you need to keep your story trucking along, all while finding a way to introduce a new character while allowing that character's player to continue on with the game in the meanwhile.
The Two Towers shows us just how this can be done.
Regarding the introduction of a new hero, our two parties are in the middle of nowhere, and Boromir's player's new concept doesn't allow the GM to randomly drop Faramir in without messing with the buy-in of the story. Fortunately, Boromir (now Faramir's) player is flexible and wants the best for the campaign, so he's willing to help out with NPCs for a few sessions.
As a side note regarding the Faramir concept, it was not unusual in the old days for players who lost a character to pick up with a new hero that was a relative of the lost character.
The GM spends some time plotting the new dual course of the campaign, and determines that this will give him the opportunity to explore the larger war going on during Frodo's quest to destroy the ring. It will also let him more deeply explore Aragorn's background and legacy.
Eowyn's player joins the game, now, but opts to take it easy for awhile, getting their feet wet with the system and sticking mostly to role play, while building to something they hope will be big.
The two groups go on their separate courses. Merry and Pippin rejoin the Saturday group, which at the end of the game consists of Merry, Pippin, Eowyn, Aragorn, Faramir, Legolas and Gimli-- large, but still a manageable size. The Monday game, on the other hand, has three players for awhile, but in the end consists of just Frodo and Sam, very small and indeed, minimalistic in size, but the GM resolves to make it work. Indeed, he determines this will allow him to shine a laser focus on the goals of that group. In fact, he's got big plans for the end of this campaign that he hopes will enable him to have everyone at the same table together.
The divergent stories also allow the GM to really open things up. He opts to try his hand at a major battle, as a test run for what he hopes will come. This leads to the battle of Helm's Deep. To be honest, there are a wide variety of ways he could to this. Above we have him using a hybrid system--large scale miniatures wargame rules to run the battle, with role play interludes allowing for heroic actions to take place.
Alternately, he could simply run full on miniatures battles, he could use a narrative mass combat system, or he could simply focus on the heroes' actions during a battle whose outcome he has determined in advance, allowing them to shine as the events roar around them. What system any given game uses really depends on the makeup of the players and what they would prefer.
Again, all of the heroes both old and new get a chance to shine, while character backgrounds are explored, and the story moves towards its inexorable conclusion...