Friday, December 18, 1998

The Magic of Middle-Earth in a MMORPG


Faërie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic -- but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.
-- J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories"
In 1998 there was an effort to create a massively multiplayer online game called Middle-Earth Online based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth milieu. [Update 2008/04/16: Although Middle-Earth Online was canceled, a massively multiplayer online RPG based on Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" novels was realized as a computer game in 2007 with the launch of Lord of the Rings Online. This essay was written nearly ten years earlier, but I post it as I thought it might be interesting to contrast my guesses and suggestions from 1998 with the gameplay of LotRO as it actually shipped.]

In the process of reading the messages on the forum dedicated to that game as it was being designed, I started wondering how "magic" as described by Tolkien could be translated into a feature of a massively multiplayer game. Just what did Tolkien mean by magical ability? What forms could Tolkien's conceptions of "magic" take in a MMOG? What restrictions or revisions might be necessary to make purely literary effects functional in a "real" game environment intended to simultaneously satisfy many players with very diverse expectations?

Back in 1993 I developed a system for categorizing different forms of magical ability as expressed in fantasy literature. (If you're interested, you can read this essay in "Magic-Using Societies in Fantasy Fiction.") Eventually it occurred to me that it should be possible to analyze Tolkien's Middle-Earth according to this categorization system; maybe doing so would help in thinking about the high-level strategic implementation questions.

This essay was the result.


First, let me recap my four-fold categorization of magical ability.

In this system, magic is classified first as being either innate to individuals, or else requiring material resources. That is, the source of power is either "internal" to the magic-user or "external."

Second, magic can be done either by all members of a society or race, or else the power is somehow restricted to only certain individuals within that society or race. In other words, the scope of control is either "some" or "all."

Considering these two aspects -- the source of power, and the scope of control -- leads to a 2 x 2 matrix, and thus to four different styles of magical ability:



A. Inherited

In the Inherited form, magic can be done only by some members of a society or race, and the ability is innate to those individuals.

The most obvious explanation of this is that the ability is genetic; that is, it is passed from parent to child. Two examples of this in fantasy literature are the "Deryni" books by Katherine Kurtz and the "Sunrunner" books by Melanie Rawn.

Another way in which this ability could be transferred might be a form of "laying on of hands." It would not be difficult to adapt this concept to the transference of magical ability, as long as the person transferring the ability must transfer all of it. (Otherwise this would lead eventually to either a few terrifically powerful individuals, or else to an entire society of individuals who have too little ability to accomplish much. While potentially interesting for a story, this wouldn't adapt well to a multiplayer gaming environment.)

By either of these means, the ability to do magic is restricted to a few persons, and does not require any resources external to the practitioner. The crucial element is simply an act of will.

B. Innate

The Innate form of magical ability is similar to the Inherited form, with the difference that useful magical ability is available to all members of a society or race.

As with Inherited magical ability, all that is required to perform Innate magic is an act of will. It may or may not require training to direct this force of will in a useful way, and some individuals are likely to have more willpower than others. Still, those who possess this innate ability will appear almost supernatural to other races or societies. To those with no innate magical abilities, an entire race of beings with such power will seem not so much to do magic as to be magical.

Among the somewhat rare examples in fantasy literature of this form of magic ability are Sheri S. Tepper's "True Game" books and Piers Anthony's stories of "Xanth."

C. Owned

The Owned form of magical ability is so-called because the magic is invested in external objects or resources that must be possessed to be used.

In this kind of setting, members of the society or race of interest don't actually "do" magic themselves, but instead use magical items that occur naturally or are created by others. This is typically the format of the "heros." With no innate powers of their own, they must find magical objects, gain access to them, learn how to use them, and protect them from being taken by someone else.

This format is often of interest to writers because obvious conflicts arise from it. For example, what happens to an ordinary person who suddenly becomes the owner of a powerful magical artifact? How is this person changed by power? Furthermore, becoming accustomed to wielding power automatically creates the threat of losing that power, and threats drive plot.

(Additionally, game developers find this kind of magic relatively easy to implement. This is even more so with the advent of C++, in which magical objects can be implemented as... well, as objects!)

Magical devices have been described for centuries, precisely because of the strength of the notion of conferring power on the weak. Examples of such devices are flying carpets, cornucopia, enchanted arms and armor, and any number of rings, cloaks, helms, amulets, potions and scrolls.

Naturally, stories which use this kind of magic are legion. Examples include "Jack and the Beanstalk" (magic beans), the Nibelungenlied (finalized in Wagner's Ring cycle, complete with dwarves, a dragon, a cursed ring, and a broken sword made whole again), the Arthurian cycle (Excalibur), and even the rings in Thorne Smith's The Night Life of the Gods which could turn people into statues (and vice-versa).

D. Learned

In a way, this is the most mundane of all the forms of magical ability. Here, magic, once Learned, can be performed by anyone -- all that is needed is the appropriate knowledge. This is one case where knowledge really does equal power.

In such a world, magic is treated like we treat science. It is analyzed by theoreticians, codified into Laws and Rules and Doctrines, and applied by skilled practitioners... often for money. It is, in short, just one craft among many.

This is not to say that some individuals won't have more skill or interest in the craft of magic than others. For example, anyone in our world who wishes to do so and has access to teachers may study computer programming. But not everyone cares to do so, nor does everyone have equal native talent at it.

So it is in the kind of fantasy world that has "Colleges of Magic." Those characters who devote themselves to learning magic and are good at it may be treated with great respect and even awe, as in Ursula K. Le Guin's "Earthsea" stories. On the other hand, just as some computing professionals are regarded as geeks for their single-minded dedication to mastering their craft, it's no stretch to imagine wizards who lack a few social graces (and who manage to blow themselves up regularly) as in Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" books.

However its practitioners are regarded, the essential distinction of this kind of magical ability is that one's power is directly proportional to one's knowledge. This can be played for laughs... but it's also the basis of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (and any number of lame '50s sci-fi/monster movies) in which the lust for knowledge unrestrained by humility leads to disaster. "There are some things Man was never meant to know."


So how do these categories apply to Professor Tolkien's Middle-Earth?

By my reckoning Tolkien actually used several of the different styles of magical ability I've described. Each of the different races -- including the debased and evil races that use magic -- fits into one of the four categories given above. (There is one special exception: a kind of magic that appears to be available to all the races of Middle-Earth, which I will describe later.)

A. Men and Hobbits (and Orcs and Trolls and Goblins, etc.)

As a general rule, Men and Hobbits and members of "lesser" races have no innate magical ability of their own. Additionally, while they may be able to learn craft secrets or other lore, they appear to lack the power to apply that knowledge (as the wizards could). Thus, they can use only Owned magic (the kind embedded in magical items).

For example, Bilbo and Frodo could become invisible only by using the Great Ring; they protected themselves with the shirt of mithril; they attacked with the enchanted dagger Sting. Samwise could not summon light himself; he required Galadriel's phial. (Tolkien, in fact, seems to have made a point of describing Hobbits as far too sensible to bother with that "magic" stuff. This is what makes Sam's gradual acceptance of magic some of the most fascinating writing in all of LOTR.)

Similarly, Boromir and other Men did no learned or innate magic themselves. (Aragorn is a special case, as considered below.) Unlike Hobbits, whom Tolkien portrayed as not using magic simply because they had no use for it, Tolkien seemed to have a somewhat less benign view of Man. As I read it, Men did not do magic because they lacked the necessary greatness of spirit. A very few great-hearted Men might possess one extremely limited magical ability (such as that of the Beornings), and one or two other Men might have a special gift to inspire others as a genetic inheritance from Lúthien, but in general Men are crude iron to Elvish silver and gold.
Men, like Hobbits, could and did use items that might be enchanted, such as the Dragon-Helm of Hador, the reforged Narsil, and perhaps even Boromir's horn. But the Elvish power to alter reality as an act of will was not among the gifts given to Man.

B. Dwarves

Dwarves are a puzzle. They seem, according to the majority of Tolkien's work concerning them, to have rejected magic almost completely. Dwarves are consistently described as having great skill in the fashioning of things, an affinity for caves, a potential for avarice, and very touchy senses of honor (with long memories where their honor is concerned)... but in all of this, Tolkien shows us no scenes of Dwarves doing magic. It is thus easy to conclude that Dwarves, like Men and Hobbits, were purely mundane, and that any appearance of magical ability in them is due to their unsurpassed craft.

For example, while Gandalf has a conversation with Gimli before the locked door of Moria concerning dwarven craft, what the Dwarves do is not explicitly described by Tolkien as "magical." Gandalf speaks of Dwarven doors that open at certain times or for certain individuals, or by speaking certain words such as those of the secret Dwarf-speech, but none of these things are necessarily magical. It's not unreasonable to ascribe them to great craft, such as that used to create the secret entrance to Mt. Erebor: "...the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the keyhole."

But this mundane appearance may be deceiving. Although Tolkien (to my knowledge) never directly shows Dwarves doing what he portrays as magic, or even using magical items, there are a few off-stage references to both of these.

There is the acceptance by the Dwarf-lords of the seven Rings forged for them by the elven-smiths of Eregion. Although this might be explained away as a matter of the Dwarvish instinct to hoard valuable things, Sauron could only have entrapped the wearers if they had worn the seven rings and used their powers.

A somewhat clearer example of Dwarven magic use is the work of the great smith, Telchar of Nogrod. For one thing, Telchar forged the Helm of Hador. As Tolkien says of this, "...on it were graven runes of victory. A power was in it that guarded any who wore it from wound or death, for the sword that hewed it was broken, and the dart that smote it sprang aside." For another example, Telchar forged Narsil, the blade reforged for Aragorn as Andúril.

A reasonable argument could be made that the "magical" appearance of these items was merely due to their having been made with an almost miraculous level of skill. (I held to just this argument for some time.) But an equally reasonable reading of Tolkien suggests that he intended for these items to be regarded as possessing magical powers.

What finally tipped the balance for me in accepting that some Dwarves could indeed do magic (if only the limited kind of imbuing artifacts with special virtues) was the Unexpected Party at Bag End in The Hobbit. When Thorin Oakenshield and the other twelve Dwarves are introduced to Bilbo through Gandalf's guile, they sing a song which includes the verse:

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells
While hammers fell like ringing bells
And if that's not clear enough, Tolkien immediately follows this song by stating that Bilbo "...felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him..."

Was this merely a bit of poetic license on Tolkien's part? After all, The Hobbit is widely considered a rather lightweight bit of whimsy, not really "canon" like The Silmarillion or Narn i Hîn Húrin. But I believe that this should be taken just as Prof. Tolkien stated it -- as evidence (not conclusive, perhaps, but supportive) that some Dwarves could indeed perform a kind of magic.

Still, perhaps this was merely an unintended artifact of Tolkien's story-telling. Given the many years in which Tolkien's tale "grew in the telling," it should not be surprising that perfect consistency was impossible, not to mention subsidiary to literary considerations. And yet, there it is. Tolkien said that Dwarves cast spells; they did magic. Do we toss aside these statements simply because they appear in The Hobbit? How can we ignore them (because they inconveniently do not fit a theory) without casting doubt on so many other questions?

I think we can't. So, considering all the evidence as fairly as I can, I'm prepared to say that, while most Dwarves never did anything magical nor desired to do so, a very few of the most learned and skillful Dwarves could perform feats of craftsmanship indistinguishable from magic.

Call it the "Clarke Hypothesis" of Dwarven magic.

C. Elves

The Elves are a different matter. Unlike Men and Hobbits, who have only Owned ability, and Dwarves, who have only a limited form of Learned magical ability, I classify Elves as having the Innate magical ability. (The Ents and Tom Bombadil probably also fit into this category.)

For the Elves, magic is clearly an act of will. While immense will may be necessary for magics beyond simple illusion, the essential ability to do such magic appears to be available to all Elves described by Tolkien. In this, they are akin to the Valar -- and even to Eru, the One -- in that all that is necessary for a thing to happen is that it be willed strongly enough. Just as Ilúvatar made the world, and the Valar (and Melkor) shaped it, the Elves are able to alter the physical world in accordance with their desires. While those Elves who saw the light of the Two Trees were among the most powerful, even the Green-elves of Ossiriand and the Wood-elves of Mirkwood had access to this power simply by virtue of being Elves.

With one exception, the Elves relied on this innate force of will to work their wonders, rather than on using magical items or on special knowledge. The exception is the tribe of the Noldor in general, and Fëanor, Curufin, and Celebrimbor specifically. (In addition, Galadriel, herself a Noldo, gets into the business of making artifacts, as in the shining glass she gives to Frodo.) Even Professor Tolkien seems puzzled as to why these Elves delighted in the making of things which required great craft and skill; in several passages he suggests that other Elves considered the Noldor a bit odd. (The Kinslaying at Alqualondë further set the Noldor apart from their brethren.)

Tolkien does make it clear that these Elves were the exceptions, not the rule. While the Noldor (particularly the children of Fëanor) had a special gift of craft, what set the Firstborn apart from all the other races was their burning spirit that could make what was willed real. In fact, this instinctive magical ability common to all Elves was required for the making of the Silmarils and the Rings of Power by particularly skilled Noldorin Elves. So it seems fair to suppose that the Elves are best described as using the Innate kind of magic.

There is, I should add, an alternate explanation. It may be that the power of Light magic is not innate to Elves, but is instead divine power of the Valar that may be loaned to Elves upon request. Perhaps the apparent ability of the Elves to use this kind of magic "on demand" is because the Valar can better hear the great-spirited Firstborn than any of the other races of Middle-Earth. Practically, however, the results are the same: Elves can innately do magic. In a sense, they are magic.

D. Wizards

And then there are the Istari -- the wizards. Unlike the other races, Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast and the others seem to gain their powers (and their relative positions in the wizardly hierarchy) by the development and exercise of craft and skill -- in a word, through what is Learned.

Lin Carter (in Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings) observes that Tolkien may have based the character of Gandalf on the Norse All-Father, Odin. Where this becomes interesting is when it is recalled that much of Odin's power was described as being due to his vast knowledge. In one story, Odin trades an eye for a drink at the giant Mimir's well, but in so doing, he acquires wisdom. Odin was also said to have had two great ravens, Hugin and Munin ("Thought" and "Memory"), who would fly off into the world and return with secrets.

Some of this seems to fit Gandalf and the other wizards pretty closely. Radagast the Brown, for example, gets information from his friends in the animal kingdom. And just as Odin's wisdom was bought through the pain of losing an eye, the power of Gandalf grew the greater through the pain of his grappling with the Balrog.

If another clue is needed, consider: one of the names given to Saruman was "Curunír" -- the Man of Skill. The root "curu-" or "skill" is also found in the place-name "Nan Curunír," or "Wizard's Vale."

Taking all these things into account, Tolkien's wizards appear to be best described as using the Learned style of magical ability. (This raises the related questions: "What did they learn?" and "How did they apply this knowledge?" But Tolkien offers no answers to these questions.)

E. An Exceptional Magic?

I suggested earlier that there may be a special kind of magic available to all the inhabitants of Middle-Earth. Specifically, members of any race, in extreme situations, may to be able to invoke the powers of light (the Valar?) to defy the forces of darkness.

At various points in Professor Tolkien's long history of Middle-Earth, several characters in desperate circumstances cry out in supplication. In most cases, when granted this aid is not tangible, but rather is no more -- and no less -- than a bit of extra strength with which to resist yielding to despair. And in a few cases, this aid does take the somewhat tangible form of light.

It might seem to be a bit of a stretch to call these apparent interventions "magic," but that is how Tolkien uses them. When the words "Gilthoniel, A Elbereth!" come unbidden to the mind of a hobbit as earthy and sensible as Sam Gamgee, and an oppressive force of evil retreats at those words (the Watchers at the Tower of Cirith Ungol), it's reasonable to accept that Tolkien intended this to be understood as magical.

Although to my current knowledge Tolkien does not show any explicit examples of Men or Dwarves using this kind of magic, he doesn't state that it is denied to them. Suggestions that certain Men might have access to a kind of natural magical power may be found in Aragorn's healing ability, or his calling up and commanding the Shadow Host from the Paths of the Dead. But there is a more likely reason: Aragorn's power, like his noble bearing, may have been a gift to the descendants of Lúthien Tinúviel through his ancestor Elros, who although Halfelven chose to become mortal. Further support for this interpretation comes when Tolkien, during the Mouth of Sauron's conversation with Aragorn before the Black Gate, mentions that "Black Númenóreans" also descended from Lúthien were "enamoured of evil knowledge." And this Messenger himself is said to have "learned great sorcery."

(If this notion is accepted, it may be that the descendants of Elros have a limited form of the fourth kind of magical ability, that which is Inherited. Given Tolkien's description of the waning of the Dúnedain, the genes responsible for this kind of magical ability are apparently recessive. So we might as well assume that this kind of magic is not available to the current inhabitants of Middle-Earth in the Fourth Age.)

This apparent contradiction in the magical abilities of Men might be explained if Tolkien used the term "sorcery" to refer to power exercised by craft (reserved generally to the Istari and in a specific form to the most skillful Dwarves), and the word "magic" to refer to power derived from invoking the names of the Valar and those beloved by them. I'm not familiar with any such explicit differentiation by Tolkien, but perhaps someone else can shed some light on this notion.

Generally, though, even if Men and Hobbits were thought by Tolkien to have the ability to invoke a feeling of Good in desperate straits or to learn dark sorceries, Tolkien seems to have preferred that individual members of these two races live or die on their own without doing innate magic. They might use magical items, but the special gift of innate magical ability was, except in extremely limited cases, denied them.

It's worth noting that Túrin, Tuor, and even Beren lived, fought and died without ever using any innate or invoked magical power.


Assuming these conclusions are reasonable, what are the implications for building a MMORPG around them?

The bad news is that a massively multiplayer gaming environment based on Tolkien's Middle-Earth cannot offer players a wide range of magical abilities and still remain true to Tolkien's vision of the strengths and weaknesses of the various races.

The foremost practitioners of what we commonly recognize as "magic" were the wizards. But the developers of the on-line version of Middle-Earth have already stated that players will not be allowed to be wizards as described by Tolkien. So either major-league spell-casting is out, or the developers will have to alter Professor Tolkien's vision to a significant degree.

This goes deeper than the obvious question of whether players can be allowed to be wizards or not. Not only did Tolkien restrict to the wizards the magical ability that we think of as spell-casting, but he explicitly portrayed Middle-Earth as a world in which magic was fading. The Ainur descended into the world to become the Valar and Maiar, the Valar and Maiar gave way to the Eldar, and the Eldar left the world to Men. Even evil waned in grandeur as Melkor became Morgoth, and was replaced by his still-less-noble lieutenant, Sauron. And the Third Age ended with the unmaking of the Great Ring and the passing from the world of the three Elven Rings and their bearers (including Galadriel, the last Elf in the living world to have seen the light of the Two Trees). In their passing, they took with them the last great magics of Middle-Earth.

To now reintroduce strong magic to Middle-Earth for no other reason than because paying customers want to cast spells would run completely counter to Tolkien's view of his world as consistently becoming more mundane over time. There may be valid Real World economic reasons for computer game developers to make such a fundamental change. But it is fair to point out that doing so would contradict the stated intention of the designers to hew as closely as possible to Middle-Earth as imagined by Tolkien.

This is not the only potential problem concerning magic use. Unless Tolkien's concepts of racial gifts are radically altered, those races whose members generally have no natural ability to do magic -- Men, Hobbits, and Dwarves -- will gain the use of magic only if new kinds of magic undescribed by Tolkien are invented and introduced (alchemy, for example), or if the landscape is littered with hitherto-unknown caches of Elven magical items. (Maybe the barrow-wights are breeding.)

Otherwise, the only race that will be able to do magic will be the local Wood-elves, and even they will be limited to their innate magical resistance to forces of darkness. This would mean that they'd be great to have in a party that encounters some form of evil, but against some natural danger (a bear, for example) they would have no special magic to contribute beyond innate physical abilities. Someone playing an Elf would be limited in most situations to wielding a sword or firing arrows as little more than a slightly more effective version of any mundane Man or Dwarf or Hobbit.

And because the last of the Noldor will have left, even the skillful crafting of magical items will be very limited. Following Tolkien's hints, by the Fourth Age it wouldn't even be possible to do magic in non-combat settings (which in most MMOGs accounts for significant playing time).


If we can suppose that the Inherited form of magical ability existed among at least some of the Dúnedain, it would likely be essentially extinct by the beginning of the Fourth Age. Even if possible in Tolkien's literary world, however, it likely would not be permitted to game players, since if it were possible, everyone who played a human would claim descent from Númenor. It's more likely and more reasonable to give human players access to the Owned ability that comes from using magical items, and provide a sufficient number and kind of such items to motivate good gameplay.

Meanwhile, Elves (and possibly some player classes/professions) would have some limited access to the Innate form of magic. It's possible that human players could be allowed access to Learned magic, as this would leave Elves in sole possession of Innate magic without denying those playing human characters the opportunity to "do magic." But to do so would run counter to Tolkien's conception of "magic" (in the form of Faërie) leaving Middle-Earth at the end of the Third Age.

The result of all this is that to create a massively multiplayer game based on Middle-Earth that allows players to do interesting magic will require either severe modifications of Middle-Earth as Tolkien created it, or severe limits on gameplay to preserve Tolkien's vision of the peoples and places and events of Middle-Earth.

Both choices are perilous. If you alter the well-known racial abilities and social demographics of the peoples of Middle-Earth at the start of the Fourth Age, you will be rewriting Tolkien in ways of which Tolkien would certainly not have approved, and to which the many fans of the original story will certainly object, possibly by not playing. Otherwise, the game will have to be set at some time prior to the end of the Third Age, in which case you won't have certain key figures from LOTR available as NPCs -- even worse, you'll have to design the game so that players are prevented from making a meaningful impact on the game world as that could change the whole history of Middle-Earth). Either way, you run a high risk of alienating a large group of potential players.

Ultimately, the question is whether the alterations necessary to make a fun game of a unique literary milieu will have to be so significant that the beauty and joy and hope found in Tolkien's work are expunged in favor of levelling up by killing orcs.