The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game

I'm on vacation at someone's family home and I find an old boxed game called the "Lord of the Rings Adventure Game". It's a remarkable product from 1991 (by ICE), and I'm reading through it.

It is such an odd combination of design factors, incredible attention to detail, and a horribly railroaded scenario.

Does anyone have experience with this? It's a fascinating read.

I'll post more about it when I get a chance.

Notably, the lead on the project is a woman (Editing credits, team leader, etc).

It also seems to present itself as a fun and easy game to play, suggesting that you rope in your grandmother, pull your uncle away from the TV, and so forth. I wonder if anyone found this promise fulfilled, however. There are 12 pages in the booklet devoted simply to explaining "what roleplaying is", and each pregenerated character includes four full pages of backstory! (Which are about 85% completely irrelevant to the adventure itself.)

There are beautiful maps of Middle-Earth as well as EVERY location you could possibly visit in the adventure.

This is pretty remarkable to me, because the adventure itself has only FOUR SCENES...


  • Does anyone have experience with this? It's a fascinating read.
    This game is my totem animal - my first roleplaying game, and so on. So yeah, I have a little bit if experience with it. It was published in Finnish, and I got it a year or two before my rpg hobby actually got off the ground properly - in first or second grade or something like that.

    It is an ambitious, strange and wonderful product of the sort that comes out of a larger rpg company's bowels when they are in an expansive phase, willing to implement quirky ideas. (TSR and other larger companies did similar weird experimental projects on occasion through the '80s, too.) It's deeply flawed, but also inspiring, I think; the vision of roleplaying it advocates is very pure simulationism; explain it all a bit differently, add some basic GMing techniques that the text doesn't go into, and there's nothing whatsoever wrong with what it does - provided you desire your roleplaying game to be the equivalent of a point-and-click adventure game with exquisite attention to milieu and characters. The actual adventure text is much better literarily than most, and it's not more of a railroad than most adventure modules, despite pretensions otherwise.

    In many ways it is the superior LotR roleplaying game for its time, compared to MERP. Only one of these games has a coherent creative agenda that actually encompasses and embraces a desire to "adventure in Middle-Earth", and it's not the weird AD&D remix.

    I played the intro adventure something like two years ago with friends in the spirit of research, and it all worked really well with experienced roleplayers, starting with the paper figs in a dollhouse setting (really, you use those figs to indicate how your character sits in a hobbit smial) and ending with subtle LotR cameos by various familiar figures. It didn't take much for the players to get engaged - obviously with heavy irony at the ridiculousness, but soon enough we started liking our characters and the expansive setpieces the GM delivered; it helps if you can explicitly acknowledge the railroading and go along with it. The combat with the trolls was unfun (and the Gandalf save afterwards was cringe-inducing), but apparently the appropriate tools for not doing that bullshit in this kind of game did not exist at the time at ICE, so I guess that can't be helped. The equivalent product today would probably not have separate combat rules or such; the perfect conflict-resolution system for this sort of game is one that helps maintain the railroad, not one where a derailment is always a dice roll away.

    The one big, fat flaw of that game is the lack of re-use value; the game does nothing to help you write your own adventures (not an easy task in this style of game at best of times), and there only ever were a couple of extra modules for it. It's a lot of Call of Cthulhu in many ways, including the delightfully heavy-duty adventure modules, except CoC is sort of demographically directed at people who may be assumed to be able to invent their own adventures, while this game does nothing to even suggest such.
  • That sounds exactly right, Eero!

    What a bizarre game text this thing is. I suppose you are right that many adventures of the period were badly railroaded affairs, but I've never consumed or run these adventures, so the advice in this text is shocking to me.

    I like the bit, for instance, where the PCs have a scene together to plan the hobbit's escape. The GM is instructed that, "The three possible approaches they might consider are stealth, persuasion, and violence," and then given directions on how to dissuade the players from persuasion and violence.

    The next scene starts with, "Ok, now that the players have agreed to use stealth..."

    I was also struck by the unabashed Simulationist approach of the whole thing - it's remarkably clear, down to the (I would argue) cameos by famous LotR characters.

    However, there is also this tremendous push to "teach" the group proper "adventure game" procedures. None of the methods ever have significant repercussions, however. The first one is the admonition you mention: for the players to place miniatures on the map for the "chatting in the dining room" scene.

    For another instance, if and when the players decide to unscrew the bolts in the jail window, they each make a roll to unscrew each of the ten bars individually, and each roll is then referred to a table, which tells you *how many minutes* it took that character to unscrew that particular bolt/bar (and on to the next one).

    The GM is then instructed that if the total number of minutes surpasses 15, she is supposed to create some minor distraction, like a barking dog, but that the distraction should not have any impact on their success (it is just to be mentioned and then dropped, a bit of Colour).

    Fascinating stuff.

    I have more to say on the interesting, perhaps somewhat Apocalypse World or Vincent Baker-esque construction of roleplaying, later.
  • I should mention that much of the material in the module is only applicable to future "instalments" in the adventure series (for example, I think some of the figurines are for characters who don't appear in the adventure).

    Eero, I assume that you didn't play the sequel(s)? (Has anyone else?)

    I would be especially amused if the sequels assumed the survival of all six characters, for example (given the note on handling character death, in this one). On the other hand, the extensive treasure haul (I believe there are three full pages of treasure!!!) includes two leaves which allow you to bring someone back to life. (Although it seems to assume that the players/characters will NOT be aware of this feature, which is even more confusing.)
  • I've read the sequels, but not played them. It's more of the same, and of course the campaign ship starts sort of dragging below the waterline as the assumptions of the railroad get heavier and heavier, the way they do as a campaign progresses.

    I like the observation that the game tries really hard to teach proper adventure gaming - that's exactly right, I think, regarding what's going on there. It's very much a product written from the perspective of a person who simultaneously groks the Middle-Earth aesthetic and empathizes with the muggle viewpoint of somebody who's never played these games, but they also buy 100% into what D&D has made of roleplaying: there is a One True Way, and that is an adventure game like D&D, and therefore anything you teach in your introductory product needs to be towards initiating and indoctrinating, preparing the players to move on to "real" roleplaying games, even if this means introducing them to a lot of stupid shit that makes no sense. This is, of course, a tragedy, as the hand-holding railroad story hour evidenced by this product is in itself a complete rpg paradigm; I see no reason why the game needs to lessen itself and soil its own aesthetic goals in worship of the dead corpse of D&D (thinking of the historical moment here).

    I mean, what was fun when we played this? The fun parts were listening to the GM's storytelling, inserting inconsequential character color, speculating about Tolkien Legendarium and simply roleplaying some hobbits in over their heads. Classic princess play. The sucky parts were combat grind, losing in combat in stupid ways, being punished for trying clever things, and so on - in a word, all the things that suck when you try to use a D&D style adventure game chassis for a princess play story hour like this. The reach of the LotR Adventure Game greatly surpasses its grasp.
  • If I've heard correctly, the Adventure Game was directly derived from a series of solo gamebooks ICE had been publishing, so its rigid approach was as much a legacy of its origins as anything else. Also some MERP 2nd edition supplements were dual-statted for LotRAG, but the finishing installments of the inter-connected pre-scripted adventures were never published.

    I'd been curious about LotRAG for a while but only finally got my hands on a copy recently. My impression is much as has been said already here. It reminds me a lot of Chaosium's original Basic Role-Playing, with it's contradictory emphasis on both whimsy and concrete simulation.
  • If I've heard correctly, the Adventure Game was directly derived from a series of solo gamebooks ICE had been publishing, so its rigid approach was as much a legacy of its origins as anything else.
    Oh, right, those gamebooks! They got translated to Italian and I have at least one of those somewhere - the one about being an apprentice to Saruman who smells something fishy about their master. It plays a lot like a computer adventure game, IIRC, with the player nominally able to move "freely" between locations, while looking for actions which "unlock" the next step in the planned plot. It might have had multiple endings (like, a "good" one and one or more not very good ones), but my memory is hazy... That's something I've played/read in excess of 20 years ago.
  • Reading through this thing was a pretty amazing experience.

    There is deeply detailed scope of the game's materials: each character comes with four pages of backstory, which (along with some of the GM's materials) is written in prose, including character dialogue and so forth. (As I mentioned before, most of the character background stuff seems completely irrelevant to the adventure, while some of it is absolutely vital, so skipping it is not an option.) This is quite in contrast to the pitch of the game as an easy and fun one-shot you can play with your baby sister, your grandmother, and your uncle down the street.

    As another example, at the end of the adventure you are encouraged to have a little "congratulations!" scene, where the villagers thank the heroes for what they have done. To accomplish this, the GM is given a list of 20+ NPCs they can use. Wow!

    The great level of effort put into colourful events but those events *not having any impact* is also striking. For instance, at the end of the adventure (spoiler alert!), the PCs are supposed to have two fights: first with the ogres, and then with the bandits.

    The ogre fight involves a very specific method for tracking its duration, and rules for how that affects the ogres.

    * If the PCs last long enough for the sun to come up, the ogres turn to stone, and Gandalf arrives to congratulate them.
    * If some of the PCs "die", the GM is instructed that the ogres are hungry, and therefore will not be striking with deadly aim. Turn any 'killed' result into an 'unconscious' result.
    * If the PCs do not last long enough before they are overwhelmed, there is a procedure for determining whether the ogres can make it back to safety. If they do not, once again, they turn to stone. The PCs then wake and Gandalf arrives to congratulate them.
    * If the ogres make it back to safety, then Gandalf sneaks around and tricks them into turning to stone, later. Then the PCs wake up and Gandalf congratulates them.

    If the PCs are injured, Gandalf will heal them fully.

    However! If the healer in the party healed them first, the GM is instructed to have Gandalf offer them a "gift" of healing supplies, replacing any used by the healer. (It explains that this is important, so the player isn't "punished" for using the healing supplies when Gandalf's magical healing services arrive: they must be replaced.)

    Then the fight with the bandits happens. If the PCs win, they can capture the bandits and get the treasure. If they lose, they are tied up, while the bandits disappear into the cave, and essentially kill each other (fall into magical sleep), so the PCs can later escape, capture the bandits, and get the treasure. And so on (every possibility is outlined).

    There is a long section on how to make potential PC death memorable and powerful. (Although, of course, six PCs against two bandits is not likely to present too many casualties; I'd imagine one at most.)

    However, the treasure includes two magical leaves which can be used to "bring someone back from the dead", with no consequences or side effects.

  • One thing I found fascinating is the framing of the actions involved in roleplaying.

    A player character can be involved in one of the two actions:

    A *maneuver* is something challenging which requires adjudication, and, almost always, a die roll.

    An *activity* is something which simply happens, like a character saying they walk somewhere or untie a knot. (Other examples include sitting and worrying.)

    We aren't really told how to distinguish one from the other, but as far as lingo goes, that's pretty good, and harkens to AW's "moves".

    However, from the GM's side, we are told to construct "action sequences". Action sequences are combinations of maneuvers and activities which we move through to resolve certain situations.

    These are really neat; they are a flowchart-type of sequence for the group to go through, including questions, answers, die rolls, and resolutions. The game explains that the sequences used in the adventure are specific, but then includes "generic" versions in the "Guidelines" booklet (the game specifies on multiple occasions that these are "not rules, but guidelines"! (Even with an occasional sentence which reads something like, "It is easy to roleplay when you use our rules... uh, we mean guidelines, of course.")

    These remind me a great deal of the "minigames" Vincent Baker has been building into his games ever since Poison'd (and particularly so in the designs he's currently working on).

    They very nicely lead through the real-world activities involved in playing through a heist or a combat (or whatever else). What kinds of questions to ask, what kinds of concerns to consider, which items might give bonuses, and what kinds of adjudications might be necessary. Great stuff.

    Here are the action sequences included in the Guidelines booklet:

    * Sneaking Through Town By Night
    * Getting Into Position
    * Breaking & Entering
    * Retreating from a Site
    * Fleeing an Enemy
    * Combat
    * Sneaking Through Countryside
    * Scouting the Unknown
    * Ambushing an Enemy
    * Escaping From Capture
    * Picking a Pocket
    * Tracking Through Wilderness
    * Following Quarry
    * Making a Distraction

    This is a pretty interesting approach to teaching GM and player tasks to a new group, and has some promise, especially as (as you can see) these are quite specific to the milieu and genre of this style of adventure gaming. (Despite the game itself not having much to do with adventure gaming, arguably.)

    The rules specify that, of course, this is not an exhaustive list, but GMs should feel free to construct their own sequences once they are familiar with these.

    Further, it is explained that "adventures" are formed by constructing a series of action sequences. Your adventure might begin with Fleeing an Enemy, then proceed to Getting Into Position, then Combat, and finally Breaking & Entering, for example. (This makes the railroading explicit, it seems to me, even though that's not addressed elsewhere in descriptions of GM tasks.)

    Finally, I liked the nice touch through the booklet where after certain events or scenes there is a little "Achievement completed!" blurb for the GM. Something along the lines of, "Congratulations! You've just adjudicated a [blah blah blah]. This is one of your first steps in learning the joy and skill or being a Game Master!" This is a nice way to open up the players' eyes to the potential for long-term gaming. (Although I'm not at all convinced that, without other explanation or orientation, the formulae presented in this book could be "reverse engineered" into successful gaming in this way.)

    I wish I could have taken this game home with me.

    Unsurprisingly, when I asked the family if they had ever played this game (it was part of a collection of about 15 games they had all played on a regular basis, all about 15-25 years old, when the kids were growing up), they said that they had never done so.
  • Looks like there's a retro-clone, "Tales & Legends" of the LotR Adventure Game now available, if folks want to check it out at significantly less than collector's prices. Haven't read it myself yet, but I suspect it's much more focused on the serviceable rules than the rambling scenarios.
  • That's pretty fascinating, thanks!

    Since most of the product was "rambling scenarios" (the majority of the text was written in past-tense prose, including character dialogue), I find it hard to imagine what this "clone" would look like.
  • I'm curious about that myself, though the product description seems to indicate the author is proudest of the bestiary, so I suppose much of its 70 pages are taken up by monster stats. As cheap as it is, I should stop conjecturing and just look. But like you say, most of the original game's flavor came from tons of prose; doesn't seem there'd by much left without it.

    Note, I didn't mean "servicable" as praise. Mechanically it really is just another basic traditional system, D&D in different clothes, same as a hundred others. Though it is interesting to see how it boils various _Rolemaster_ elements down to essential salts. And it's combat system is curious for being so precise and punishing in an otherwise light system.
  • I gave "Tales & Legends" a quick read-through, and as expected it's strictly the raw mechanics of LotRAG with no attempt to recreate the practices and flavor so remarkable in the original. The loss of the context-of-play is particularly glaring since there's nothing replacing it in T&L besides a barely explicated expectation that the GM will whip up traditional fantasy scenarios. Of course they couldn't keep the Middle Earth particulars, but the author of this retro-clone has apparently missed or rejected the original's design goals (ill-implemented though they may have been).
  • Interesting! Thanks for the report.
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