Now I know that a lot of gamers prefer their basic fantasy with a lot of pulp. Kick in the door, slay the monster, take the treasure, win the maiden. That's all well and good, but personally, I've always liked the epic plot, the personal drama and the sheer power of Tolkien's epic fantasy. Many would argue that Middle-earth isn't a great fit for OSR gaming. Sure, there are obvious influences, but it's not quite the vision that Dave and Gary were going for - and while that's probably true, when I run my fantasy games I'm aiming for an epic worthy of Tolkien and short of The One Ring: Adventurers Over the Edge of the Wild, the officially licensed Middle-earth role-playing game current being published by Cubicle 7 Entertainment and Sophisticated Games, Labyrinth Lord is the best fit to accomplish that.
"No," you say? Hear me out. I'm going to compare a few basic fantasy staples with Tolkien's masterpiece and let you decide.
The World is Wild and Dangerous
Most fantasy gaming is set in a wild, vastly unexplored world that is dotted with ruins of a lost high age. That sounds a lot like the ruins of Arnor and the kingdoms of Numenorian King Elendil to me. These once grand places have fallen to ruin and their history is all but forgotten by everyone but the wisest of scholars. Sounds like an easily stocked dungeon to me. Not all the ruins were once "good" either. The Witch-King of Angmar once ruled a kingdom that fell to ruin over one thousand years ago, but evil lingers there even one thousand years after his defeat.
There are a few idyllic places in the world, the most obvious being the Four Farthings of the Shire - but the Shire is kept that way by the unknowing protection of the Rangers of the North. Just beyond the horizon are horrors that would claim their lands if not for a few brave souls and sharp swords. Even the towns are rough and tumble, few and far between. Bree is the only real town we see in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it is little more than a walled village on a hill with a few outling hamlets.Strider even says to Prancing Pony innkeeper Barliman Butterbur: "I am to one fat man who lives within a day's march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly."
This is a world on the razor's edge of collapse, and without heroes (ie player characters), it would be a terrible place indeed.
The few cities and fortresses that exist are either crumbling into the past, like Minas Tirith or are hidden from the forces of evil - like Rivendell. Some have even already fallen to darkness. Minas Morgul was once known as Minas Ithil before it was taken over by the forces of Sauron, and Osgiliath (the former captial of Gondor) is a ruined husk.
All of this harkens to the almost constant theme in classic fantasy gaming of a dangerous and vast wilderness just beyond your sight. It's filled with wild terrain and abandoned ruins and though these places might be filled with riches and magical trinkets of old there are very few who are willing to risk their lives for such things - if they are even aware of their existence.
Protagonists Earn Their Place as Heroes
I'd put forth the argument that no member of the Fellowship of the Ring is higher than 5th level. Madness, you say? Think about it. Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin set out from the Shire having never gone on an adventure before. That means, by default, that they're all 1st level - and it shows. They use their class abilities (initiative bonuses, hide in wilderness, etc) to avoid trouble on the road, but even then, it still finds them sometimes. Heck, when they first set out none of them even have weapons and armor - and why would they?
Legolas and Gimli have no adventures to speak of before traveling to Rivendell - so it's also likely that they're 1st level, but because of their cultures (and thus classes), they're suitably armed and armored - but not necessarily experienced.
Boromir is, in my opinion, probably a 2nd level fighter. He talks about facing many trials on his journey from Gondor to Rivendell - so its possible he recently earned a level based on those encounters when combined with the recent campaign in Gondor against the enemy. I mean, after all, if a single orc is worth around 15xp, that means he'd have killed quite a few to earn the 2000xp to reach 2nd level - and by the simple virtue of being a fighter he's already a cut above a man-at-arms or other hireling type.
Next we have Aragorn. Depending on which version of D&D you're playing he's either a fighter or ranger - either can work. He's clearly experienced and well-traveled, no fool to the dangers of the world. He's been traveling it active for quite some time and fought in battles in both Rohan and Gondor - in addition to his work in northern Eriador and Bree-land. So, I'd put him at about 4th level. Why so low if he's been kicking around for several decades doing this? Because not all of it has been "active adventuring." He spent long spans of time in Rivendell and Lothlorien, "between adventures" as it were. Still, he can handle a reasonable number of orcs single-handedly, so he's no slouch job. But, even with that, he's still not quick to engage in battle because he recognizes how deadly it can be - after all a 4th level fighter is only going to have between 20-30hp typically. A few lucky shots and a critical hit will still kill him.
Then there's the controversal Gandalf. Personally, I love the article "Gandalf is Only a 5th Level Wizard" that was published in The Dragon #5, by Bill Segilman. It makes a strong argument regarding how Gandalf cultivates the perception of power and uses his spells in a subtle fashion and only when absolutely necessary - after all, he's only got so many slots per day.
Even the "powerful" characters in Lord of the Rings aren't extrordinarily high level. Personally, I'd put Saruman at 11th level (he has a tower, after all - and he's the most powerful spellcaster in the world). Denethor also comes to mind. He is, after all, able to almost win a battle of wills with Gandalf - this being reflected in high saving throw values.
Encounters Aren't Balanced
When you think of Lord of the Rings you often picture epic battles - but that's a bit of a misconception. There's not actually a whole lot of combat in the series. In fact, most often the characters run away instead of facing off against a powerful foe. The Nazgul are, at the very least, wights - if not something more powerful and its a sadistic referee who expects a party of four 1st level halflings to face off against nine of them.
Even the more powerful members of the party run from battle. Aragorn doesn't stand and fight these creatures. He delays, plans, and avoids. He knows that these monsters are terrible foes not to be messed with. Combat isn't "fun," it's life-or-death.
When the Fellowship reaches Moria (the original megadungeon!), the referee throws approximately seventeen million orcs at them, oh and a major demon. Again, they run - or fly, you fools, as they say.
One of the major personal battles in Lord of the Rings is Eowyn vs. the Witch-King. Let's be generous here and say that Eowyn's training as a shield-maiden of Rohan equates to being a 2nd level fighter. Also, at this point it's probably safe to say Merry is a 2nd or 3rd level halfling. The two of them vs a wight (probably with increased stats to boot) is no easy fight. It's horrible, terrible and probably going to result in their deaths - but the referee is using the framework of fantasy gaming to create an epic conflict. Maybe Eowyn's weapon is considered to be a Sword+1 while she's fighting the Witch-King, so that she can actually damage him. Merry's already wielding what is likely a magic sword, the Barrow Blade.
The Witch-King can kill with a touch. Draining one level off a man at arms is instant death. So of course armies are afraid of him. But this is an epic battle, and though its quite possible Eowyn and Merry might die, it's also not entirely unreasonable for them to achieve victory. I'd even say that Merry used his wilderness stealth ability (he is outside on the Pelennor after all) to remain unnoticed until making his strike and then giving Eowyn her moment.
Another iconic battle is Gandalf vs. the Balrog. I know it's going to sound crazy, but I put forth that Gandalf held off the Balrog with one 1st level spell. Protection From Evil prevents summoned or extra-planar creatures from touching the caster in melee. So Gandalf charged up to the Balrog and cast PoE ("You cannot pass!"), to protect the rest of the party. Simple as that. The spell is only going to last a few rounds from his level so as the Balrog beats on it, the protection wavers.As for breaking the bridge, its quite possible that Gandalf's staff (obviously magical) was a Staff of Striking. So, in the last round of combat with the Balrog he used the staff to break the bridge, but lost the initiative. His effect went off, but the Balrog got a critical hit with its whip and with the Protection from Evil over, it was able to land a hit on him with the whip (maybe even a critical hit) and drag him down as well. Gandalf's player went into this fight knowing Gandalf would die - but the party would survive.
Equipment Matters, But Isn't as Powerful as You Think
Loot is a staple of fantasy role-playing games and the Fellowship is certainly decked out. But none of these objects (except the One Ring, obviously) are massively powerful. Sting could easily be a Short Sword +1, Detect Orc 60'. Yes, Sam uses it to almost slay Shelob, but most major monsters only require a +1 weapon to damage them. Meanwhile everyone in the fellowship recieves a Cloak of Elvenkind. The elvish cordial Miruvor could easily be several doses of a Potion of Cure Light Wounds. Legolas's Bow of the Galladhrim? Eh, probably just a Long Bow +1 - enough to make a difference, but it doesn't change the dynamic of his character.
The major magical weapon in this campaign are probably Anduril (the broken blade of Elendil, reforged by the elves in Rivendell). But it's not described as being particularly magical, when compared to Sting for example. Instead Anduril probably offers a morale bonus to nearby allies, as it is a weapon of inspiration as of war.
The other major magic item is the Phial of Galadriel, I would imagine has several minor effects that can be combined to great effect. It obviously radiates Light or Continual Light. In addition, I would argue that when invoked by an elvish prayer it grants its bearer the effects of a Bless spell. Finally, it can be used to dispel magical barriers ala Dispel Magic. None of these are above 3rd level spell effects, but in the context of the story, they're still amazingly useful.
What about when it's all over and the story comes to a close? I'd imagine the player characters who are alive have gained two to three levels, but aren't warlords or such in their own right. The hobbits are able to organize their people in the Battle of Bywater, but by comparison a 3rd - 4th level Halfling is an excellent leader to a group of 0th level men-at-arms,
Now some of you might say "An entire campaign, and they only gained a few levels?" Well, yes. Because a campaign isn't about leveling to me - it's about telling a good story. And Lord of the Rings is my personal favorite.