As many of my friends and readers know, I am a huge fan and contributor to The One Ring Roleplaying Game (see my page on this blog dedicated to unofficial materials I've created for the game). In my view, it is the greatest roleplaying game ever produced for a number of reasons that I won't jump into in this post, except to say that one of its greatest strengths is how it was designed around the source material: the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
|Cover art for The Battle of Five Armies board game published by Ares Games.|
Looking at The Hobbit critically, The Battle of Five Armies is perhaps the second most important event in the story, second only to Bilbo's finding of the One Ring; the defeat of Smaug is probably third. Yet, in a game of The One Ring, this battle would probably be handled best as a prolonged event in narrative time, rather than as an episode of combat round by round. This seems to be the way Tolkien treats the battle in his book as well. Rather than long and detailed reports of the action, he only gives us broad and general descriptions, leaving much more to the imagination of the reader.
Let's pretend the game is underway. Tolkien, the Loremaster, calls the battle "terrible" and then gives an overview of the situation: the history, the geography, and the importance of the unity between Elves, Men, and Dwarves against a common enemy.
Bilbo is a player-hero and his player grabs storytelling initiative to tell everyone his thoughts. He says that the battle is the most dreadful of all his experiences and he hates it more than anything else. Tolkien allows Bilbo's Merciful trait to keep him off to the side, where he remains "quite unimportant" in the battle at the moment and out of harms way.
Tolkien then retakes the narrative and describes the rocks as being "stained black with goblin blood" and that "many of their own [the goblins'] wolves were turning on them and rending the dead and the wounded." Their bodies "were piled in heaps till Dale was dark and hideous with their corpses." In general, he describes the Battle of Five Armies as being filled with blood, betrayal, and death.
Because of such anguish, Tolkien requires a Corruption test. Bilbo's player fails the roll and gains 1 point of Shadow. He says, "Misery me! I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious. It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing. I wish I was well out of it." Because he plays his character's qualities well, Loremaster Tolkien thinks of a way to let him out.
Tolkien tells Bilbo he can see Eagles approaching. "The Eagles!" Bilbo cries, informing his allies. The player suddenly has hope that the end is near. Maybe the glory of victory will remove his misery.
But that is not how Loremaster Tolkien decides to end it. Instead, a stone hurtling from above smashes into Bilbo's helm, he falls to the ground, and is knocked unconscious. When he finally wakes up, he is all alone lying on the flat stones of Ravenhill; no one is nearby. It is obvious that the battle is over and the victory has been won, but he missed it all. Tolkien says, "A cloudless day, but cold, is broad above you. You are shaking, and chilled as stone, but your head burns with fire..."
Bilbo's player reveals his thoughts. "Victory after all, I suppose!" But the Loremaster reminds him that his head is aching. "Well, it seems a very gloomy business."
At this moment, the second most important event in The Hobbit is upstaged by an even more significant development: Bilbo's growth as a hero!
You see, war is a terrible and gloomy affair, and the Battle of Five Armies teaches him that there is not much glory in either defeat or victory. Yet, long afterwards, Bilbo would recall the battle with fondness; he was proud to say that he took part in it. Certainly not because he enjoyed violence, but for the unity of the Free Peoples.
I'm not going to lie. I enjoy combat in roleplaying games. I like defending the good, the innocent, and righteous while vanquishing evil enemies. This is heroic to me. I see it as a form of compassion toward the weak and helpless. Tolkien, however, was a bit more familiar with warfare than me. If it were always so clearly good versus evil, he might agree with me. But, he saw corruption at various stages. He also saw that God could even use evil to bring about good. Therefore, we should not be so quick to kill, but to show pity. Look at how he treated Gollum.
All of this teaches me that roleplaying games do not have to glorify violence in order to be entertaining or satisfying. A change of focus to the heroic development of the characters and the overall advancement of good makes for a much deeper game than spending hours rolling dice and killing the bad guys.