Return of the King: Lord of the Rings and Campaign Building, Part Three

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So here we are in part three of our epic fantasy campaign based on Lord of the Rings. When we last left our heroes, the Fellowship had fractured, with our hobbits Sam and Frodo in desperate peril, Sam following the captured and incapacitated Frodo into Cirith Ungol, and the rest of the crew, including new character Faramir, split between marshalling the forces of Rohan and riding to warn Minas Tirith of a coming attack. 

Our intrepid GM now faces a further challenge; not only have his gaming groups split in twain, his Saturday group is now facing a potentially long-term party split. He briefly considers branching off into a third gaming group but decides even for him, that's untenable, and besides, the Saturday group are all still pursuing the same goal. He'll deal with the split party by switching back and forth at dramatic moments. He's also got a grand plan, if he can pull it off, for the end battle. 

And so we begin. 

Source: Wikipedia

Group One: The War of the Ring

Now begins the most intensive and complex part of the GM's campaign. He again takes a bit of time to plan out what's got to happen, and make notes on how he's going to handle the struggles that are set to follow. When the group comes back together, he's ready to go. 

He informs the players that due to their decision to split the party, he's going to have to bounce back and forth between the groups, and he hopes they'll bear with him as he does so. He'll try not to focus on any one group for too long, so people don't have to twiddle their thumbs. The group is fine with that; they understand they've made the decision to split the party, and they're actually looking forward to seeing the role playing between the groups. 

In addition, for those who wish, the GM is willing to offer up a few minor NPCs they can portray while they're not focused on their main characters. A few players take him up on this offer and are assigned various Gondor guards and Rohirrim. 

He begins with a brief section wherein Pippin arrives at Minas Tirith, introduces Denethor, and informs everyone that Faramir hasn't returned yet. He then moves to the balance of the party, in Rohan. Aragorn confronts Sauron through the Palantir. The Grey Company appears, and he learns about the Army of the Dead. He opts to set out to retrieve them to aid in the cause. Despite Eowyn's attempts to keep him around, he cannot be dissuaded. The party splits again, with Merry and Eowyn remaining behind. 

At this point, the GM has an idea and pulls Eowyn's player aside, explaining his surprise and asking her to keep it secret from the other players. She agrees, and it is revealed that Eowyn is forbidden from traveling to Rohan, and her player will be portraying a new character, a Rohirrim warrior riding with the host. Her new character Dernhelm resolves to secretly carry Merry along when the king also decrees he should be left behind due to his limited battle experience.

Back in Gondor, Farmir returns and informs everyone what happened with Frodo and Sam. This is the first the Saturday group have heard of their exploits, and they are intrigued. Denethor is outraged at Farmir's failure to return the Ring. He orders Faramir to ride with a force to Osgiliath and defend it against the vangard of Sauron's forces, an impossible task. The battle fails, and Faramir is grievously wounded, though he does manage to stabilize. The GM uses this as an opportunity to portray Denethor's descent into madness as the forces of Mordor close in. 

Meanwhile, Aragon manages to secure the army of ghostly oathbreakers to his side; again, eager to keep this a surprise, the GM pulls Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli aside and quickly runs their capture of the Corsairs with the help of the Army of the Dead, asking them to keep silent about what happened to the rest of the table.

At this time, the GM reveals that the forces of Theoden have arrived, and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields has begun. Once again, the GM uses a combination of miniatures mass battle rules with the individual heroic actions of the PCs for maximum drama. 

During the battle, several important plot points occur: first, the Black Corsairs arrive and are revealed to be the Grey Company under the command of Aragorn; second, Dernhelm is revealed to have been Eowyn all along, when she and Merry slay the Witch King of Angmar; and third, Denethor's immolation and passing. As his character is currently grievously wounded (and cure light wounds isn't a thing in Middle Earth), Faramir's woefully unlucky player is given control of Eomer for the duration of the battle and jokingly told not to kill this one. For his part, Faramir is transported to the Houses of Healing, where Pippin is set to guard the new Steward. 

The combined forces of the Grey Company, the Rohirrim and the Gondorians are successful in defending Minas Tirith and driving Sauron's forces back to Mordor. Aragorn removes his regalia of kingship, having refused to accept that mantle until the war is won, and slips into the Houses of Healing, where he uses special abilities granted by the GM to heal Faramir, Eowyn, Merry and others. The GM then reveals a number of prophecies that are being fulfilled. 

A council is held, wherein it is decided that their best bet is to press their momentum and lay siege to the Black Gate itself, hopefully granting Frodo and Sam the distraction they'll need to get to Mount Doom. The GM temporarily calls a brief hiatus at this point.

Group Two: The Ring Goes to Mordor

Meanwhile, in the Monday group, Sam tracks Frodo to Cirith Ungol and rescues him after defeating Shelob. He dons the ring and, invisible, tracks the orcs to their home base, where he discovers that the majority of the orcs have fallen into chaos and actually murdered each other. He confronts and drives off an orcish captain, who unfortunately gets away with Frodo's mithril shirt, elvish cloak and barrow-sword. He then manages to slay an orc about to harm Frodo and rescues his master, who madly demands the ring back, having failed several saving throws against its corruption. 

The two disguise themselves as orcs and make their way to Mordor, where they blend in and approach Mount Doom. A number of adventures involving evading orcish attention ensue. Suddenly, they see that Mordor is emptying, all the orcs headed for the Black Gate, and note the Eye of Sauron itself fixed on the West. The GM temporarily calls a brief hiatus at this point. 

The Groups Reunited: The End of the Third Age

The GM calls everyone together and asks when everyone might be available at the same time to finish the campaign. He anticipates the need for only a session or two, to bring it together. Everyone is able to make the time to get together, with Sam and Frodo's players returning to the Saturday group for a few weeks, their schedules having opened back up.

At this point the GM runs back and forth between the battle at the gates of Mordor, which he once again runs using miniaturs battle rules combined with role playing elements, the interaction of Eowyn and Faramir in Gondor, and the two hobbits in Mordor. At various times, Eowyn and Faramir's players are given the ability to run NPCs to keep them involved in the main action, while still being given a chance to shine in their proper roles. 

As Sam and Frodo approach Mount Doom, Frodo fails his final saving throw and is overcome by the ring. He refuses to submit, and puts it on. Sauron's eye is drawn instantly to the mountain, and Sam despairs. At this point, the GM hands a character sheet to Farmir's player. "You're there," he says. 

The sheet is Gollum's, and a battle takes place, which results in the events of the ring's destruction. Sam manages to save Frodo and get him out, as the forces outside the gate are victorious. Sauron is defeated. 

As an epilogue, the GM runs the series of good-byes, and Aragorn's coronation. He intends the game to end with the hobbits heading home. 


The Scouring of the Shire

The hobbits aren't quite ready to quit, yet. They'd like to adventure together some more, since that's where the game began in the first place. The GM realizes that he never properly ended the story of Saruman and Grima, and devises the Scouring of the Shire as a fitting end for the hobbit characters. This section of the game ends with the departure of Frodo and Bilbo to the West, and Sam returning home to his wife.

Note that in the movie version of these events, the scouring is skipped and the campaign does end with the coronation of Aragorn, the return home of the hobbits, and the departure to the West.

How It All Comes Together

In this final section, we see a number of complications arise, which almost every GM faces when they're running a very long-term, epic campaign. Specifically, such a huge story doesn't always have room to easily incorporate everyone, and what happens when the game is moving forward full-bore and a hero falls to wounds or death?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having your players switch characters mid-campaign when a party is split, when their main player is wounded, or when they are otherwise of necessity removed from the main action. Done properly it can actually add drama and excitement to a game, while keeping everyone involved. As a GM, I once had a player portray a secondary character for literally months of play, so much so that she became somewhat attached to this second character almost as much as her original. Through that particular campaign there were a number of instances where main characters were temporarily removed from the story and players took on new roles.

Losing Characters at the End Game

In this one, we see the problem with Faramir and Eowyn being removed very close to the end of the game. I've structured it so that the events match those of the books, but really, in a home campaign there is absolutely no reason why after Aragorn heals them, Faramir and Eowyn couldn't participate in the battle at the Black Gates as well. I'm just using the books and films here as a model of how an epic campaign could be run, and to demonstrate that Lord of the Rings can, in fact, work as a fantasy RPG campaign, despite common statements to the contrary.

Split Parties

As things progress, the GM does a good job jumping quickly back and forth between the three groups in the Saturday game, while keeping Frodo and Sam in line with where they are. He then brings everyone together for a grand finale. Having to deal with a split party is something that will happen to every GM at some point during their game. It's a skill you must master, the ability to jump back and forth while keeping everyone engaged. Again, keeping things moving fast is the key, as well as having the flexibility to allow players to take on NPCs as needed in longer sections.

When you do this as a GM, you may find even that while you run one party, the others are plenty well engaged with scheming and planning about how they're going to proceed when you get back to them. If this happens, you're doing something right.

Preparation is Key

Through all three parts of this series, we've seen one key to the success of the campaign. It's all about preparation. Preparation, preparation, preparation. The key, however, is not to be so prepared as to create a railroad that robs your players of choice and agency. We see here that our GM doesn't even have the results of the battles planned out--he runs them using mass combat rules. He's got world notes. He knows Sauron's plan. He has fleshed-out major NPCs. This together enables him to react to the players' decisions, while still moving the story forward.

He's fairly certain the heroes are going to win in the end, but he's also resolved that in many ways, all bets are off and they can fail. This is evident when Frodo fails a save; the GM throws the players a bone when he gives Gollum back to Faramir's player for the destruction of the ring.

Bringing Everyone Back

Regarding bringing the two gaming groups back together, some people, again, may consider this to be stretching believability. To these I can only say that I've done it myself--had two groups split off in the same campaign world, but then worked with everyone to find a time when they can come back together months or even years later for a specific story element. Consider that by this point in the campaign, months have probably passed. Schedules change, availability opens up (or closes off) and a revisit can produce surprising results.

An Epilogue

The Scouring of the Shire is a great example of what happens with the, "Awww, that's it?" factor that often comes with the end of a campaign. Some of the players are inevitably not ready to quit, and in this case, the GM does have a dangling thread he can resolve in a suitably epic fashion to serve as an epilogue and a cap on the game.

There you have it! I hope you've enjoyed this series on how Lord of the Rings not only works as a fantasy game, but can actually be seen as a master class in how to build and rune your magnum opus game. It's a good look at the difficulties of such a game, and how they can be handled by a skilled game master. It's also a look at the kinds of preparation, adaptability, and quick thinking that are required by experienced GMs.

There are undoubtedly those who will still be dismissive of this, claiming nobody has the time to put this kind of energy into their game, or accusing me of saying if you don't, you're a bad GM. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because you can't run this kind of campaign, that doesn't mean you are a bad GM, or that you can't run an epic game of your own design. This is just a solid look at one way it can be done, and a look at the old-school commitment to the hobby that gamers once had. That doesn't mean if you don't have this level of time investment you're doing it wrong; it's an academic look, and that's all.

Again, I hope you enjoyed the breakdown. Thanks for reading!


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