Friday, June 5, 2020


Tonight, I am sitting up thinking about the future of The One Ring Roleplaying Game now that a new partnership has been formed between Sophisticated Games and Free League Games (Fria Ligan). I was highly involved with Cubicle7 Games, helping them at GenCon for many years, and just being a devoted fan, commenting on their forum until it came down, but then on BoardGameGeek for awhile. Now, I'm happy to report that Free League has started a forum for the game. It feels like going back home after a long while. In fact, the forum setup is very much like the old C7 one.

Enough catching up! Let me get to the point of this particular blog entry. It has to do with a word that Tolkien used in the opening chapter of The Hobbit, and that word is snapdragons.

"They used to go up like great lilies and snapdragons...and hang in the twilight all evening!"

Funny thing, for many years I have used the term "Snapdragons!" as an exclamation like one would say the word, "Shoot!" But, I never remembered where I got it from or what it meant...until now.

There's a great book I'd like to recommend to you by Oliver Loo called A Tolkien English Glossary: A Guide to Old Uncommon and Archaic Words Used in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. You can download it on Kindle for free here.

Here is the the definition of snapdragons:

A plant of the scrophulariaceous genus Antirrhinum, esp. A. Majus, an herb long cultivated for its spikes of showy flowers, of various colors, with a corolla that has been supposed to look like the mouth of a dragon.

That sounds like a pretty cool looking plant to me!

Tolkien's attention to geography and flora, especially, has always impressed and intimidated me. I'm no botanist and I feel very uneducated when it comes to the science of geography and ecosystems, etc. When I write, I have to study so much about flora and fauna and recently I found a website to help with this called I highly recommend it to anyone writing adventures for The One Ring or Adventures In Middle-earth roleplaying games and you want to add some interesting descriptions to give your gaming sessions a more authentic Tolkienian feel. If anyone finds a geography site with land and water descriptions, please let me know!

Oh, look here! I found a picture of snapdragons. Beautiful.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Terrible Battle of Five Armies

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.
As I was thinking about how characters develop in a roleplaying game versus how characters develop in a novel, my thoughts turned to The Hobbit and imagined if Professor Tolkien were a Loremaster running a game of The One Ring based on that adventure story. Particularly, I imagined how he would handle the climactic battle at The Lonely Mountain. What would be his true focus and why? Would he set up hours and hours of rolling dice and testing the prowess of his players' weapon skills? In the end, would everyone go away exhausted, yet thrilled with the glory of battle?

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 I. 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. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

They Stand Tall in Our Dreams

‘I need no map,’ said Gimli, who had come up with Legolas, and was gazing out before him with a strange light in his deep eyes. ‘There is the land where our fathers worked of old, and we have wrought the image of those mountains into many works of metal and of stone, and into many songs and tales. They stand tall in our dreams: Baraz, Zirak, Shathûr.

‘Only once before have I seen them from afar in waking life, but I know them and their names, for under them lies Khazad-dûm, the Dwarrowdelf, that is now called the Black Pit, Moria in the Elvish tongue. Yonder stands Barazinbar, the Redhorn, cruel Caradhras; and beyond him are Silvertine and Cloudyhead: Celebdil the White, and Fanuidhol the Grey, that we call Zirakzigil and Bundushathûr.

‘There the Misty Mountains divide, and between their arms lies the deep-shadowed valley which we cannot forget: Azanulbizar, the Dimrill Dale, which the Elves call Nanduhirion.’

—Tolkien, J.R.R.. The Lord of the Rings: One Volume (p. 283). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Deep into their hearts and minds the Dwarves engraved the images and names of these special peaks, the mountains where their fathers worked in days long past, so much so that Gimli didn’t even need a map, though he had only actually seen these lands once from afar. They did this through the arts of metalwork and stonework, as well as oral tradition.

In our world, remembering is something we no longer work very hard to do. We have technology to do our thinking. Google it. Ask Siri. Ask Alexa. We can retrieve information in seconds. To be honest, it’s annoying at times. Anyone can act like an ‘expert’ after reading a detailed online article. (I’ve been guilty of this myself, so I’m not pointing fingers.) But, how quickly that information disappears from our minds! Heck, I’ve even memorized scripts, maps of locations, and pieces of foreign languages, but now I forget them. I guess they weren’t that important.

Where am I going with all this? We remember the things we love, and we find ways to honor them. 

The Dwarves loved their mountains and they stood tall in their dreams. What stands tall in your dreams? Who, what, or where would you never need to ask Siri about? How do you honor those things in your life?

This small portion of The Fellowship of the Ring has reminded me to honor the things I love and to cherish them through the arts. God gave me the desire to draw and write and speak and he has gifted me in those things. Through them, I think I can do more to show honor. So often, I am focused on creating new things or fresh ideas. This has given me a new approach to art: to honor and memorialize what I love and to share them with my family and friends. After all, those will be the remembered things, the mountains that stand tall in our dreams.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Good Sermon

Professor J.R.R. Tolkien
In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, entry 63 is addressed to his son Christopher Tolkien and dated 24 April 1944. The letter begins with reports about what the Professor ate for breakfast (toast and home-made marmalade) and the warm weather. But after awhile, he gets around to a topic that any pastor or preacher of the gospel could benefit from: what constitutes a good sermon.

"But as for sermons! They are bad, aren't they! Most of them from any point of view."

Have you ever heard a bad sermon? They're tough to sit through.

Tolkien offers two reasons for the problem of bad sermons, and one comment about what makes a real sermon.

First, he explains that delivering a good sermon requires art, and a bit of virtue and knowledge. His critique is that most preachers lack these things. Ouch! In other words, they bore their listeners with unprepared and ignorant remarks while showing off. When I was young, I once heard someone describe an unskilled preacher like this: "He couldn't preach his way out of a wet paper bag." Tolkien compares the bad preacher with a pretender who sits down at a piano to play, yet doesn't know a thing about the piano or maybe even music for that matter.
  • A good sermon requires preparation and training, because it is partly a performance.
For many people, these comments alone would suffice and there would be no need for further explanation on the problem of a bad sermon. Yet, Tolkien goes deeper. He sees things beyond the performance:

"But preaching is complicated by the fact that we expect in it not only a performance, but truth and sincerity, and also at least no word, tone, or note that suggests the possession of vices (such as hypocrisy, vanity) or defects (such as folly, ignorance) in the preacher."

Now, he enters into the personal realm of the preacher. Not only should the message be delivered artfully, but the messenger who delivers it should be a person of Christ-like character (no suggestion of vices or defects).
  • A good sermon requires a good messenger, because it is partly a demonstration of truth.
I think that it is quite clear Tolkien's sermon satisfaction would have been at 99% if the preachers in his day had simply performed well and showed truth and sincerity. Sadly, that was not his observance. To describe the epitome of a good sermon, he offers one last comment that reaches beyond the natural realm.

"Real sermons require some special grace which does not transcend art but arrives at it by instinct or 'inspiration'; indeed the Holy Spirit seems sometimes to speak through a human mouth providing art, virtue and insight he does not himself possess: but the occasions are rare."

Art and virtue and insight are still part of the equation of a good sermon, but now enters the Holy Spirit who provides it all the more. This special grace leads to what Tolkien called a "real sermon." In other words, when God speaks through a human mouth, it carries a weight of truth and grace that is felt by all who listen. They know that something special is happening and that God is assisting the performer.
  • A real sermon requires a special grace, because it is a timely message from God to the listeners.
So there you have it. According to the Professor, a good sermon needs three ingredients:
  • Preparation and training in knowledge and art
  • Truth and sincerity from the preacher
  • Special grace and help from the Holy Spirit
I like that. I humbly desire to preach good sermons, real sermons, whenever I am afforded the opportunity.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Diversity Makes Us Complete

Here's another word from the book Write Well, Speak Well (Houghton Mifflin) that caught my eye. It's a word that is often misused and confused. The word is...

com.ple.ment (kŏm′plǝ-mǝnt); noun; Something that completes, makes up a whole, or brings to perfection.

Example: The large beautiful tree still held its full complement of leaves.

Looking at the definition for this word made me think of some other things that have come up recently in my church. We have been studying our fundamental doctrines lately and one of the teachings focused on the church and its mission. The apostle Paul writes in the book of Romans, chapter 12, verses 4 and 5:

4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (English Standard Version)

This basically teaches individual Christians that even though they are unique individuals, performing different functions, they all belong to one another and only together do they make up the full body of Christ—the Church. One member cannot say to another, "I don't need you." Each member is needed to make up the full complement and to bring it to perfection.
The diversity of Saints around the throne of heaven.

Where there is division and hate, there is brokenness.

Now, think about that in the context of the human race. God has created each human being in His image and in His likeness. Yet, we are all unique persons. I think the greatest picture of God can only be obtained when a diverse group of individuals comes together and learns to appreciate differences. And diversity to me is way more than language and culture (although the Bible gives a great picture of heaven when it says there were individuals "from every tribe and language and people and nation" worshiping God around the throne; see Revelation 5:9). Diversity involves personality, interests, skills, dreams, gender, and color. Think of all the wonderful things we could bring to the table if we would only believe that we belong to one another.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I am not advocating that we should all lay down our beliefs and convictions in the name of unity. I am, after all, unapologetically a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I cannot help it. After some deep and sincere soul searching, Christ saved me and called me into the ministry twenty-eight years ago at the age of fifteen. He is as real to me as everything we see. I talk to Jesus every day and I have dedicated my life to spreading the Good News that there is hope for everyone who calls on the name of Jesus! But, I try to do it in accordance with the Scripture with gentleness and respect.

What I am proposing is that we remember we are all first born of God. There is something to be appreciated in each human being. There is something to respect about the image of God they bear. They may not recognize they bear His image and likeness, and their behaviors may sometimes make it hard to see, but in them are the attributes of their Creator. And our Creator loves us. We should love one another too. It is through His love displayed that people have a chance to respond to God and love Him back.

We, friends, belong to one another. Together we make up the full complement of the human race. One race made up of diverse peoples. To our Creator we are worth more than the stars that shine in the universe. Why can't we see it that way too?

Friday, December 19, 2014

Lembas, the Bread of Life

Now as the blackness of night returned Frodo sat, his head between his knees, his arms hanging wearily to the ground where his hands lay feebly twitching. Sam watched him, till night covered them both and hid them from one another. He could no longer find any words to say; and he turned to his own dark thoughts. As for himself, though weary and under a shadow of fear, he still had some strength left. The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam's mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.

 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, Book SIX, Chapter III, Mount Doom

What an amazing power Tolkien has given to lembas! A quick study of it will tell you all about its origins and how it was made. Check out Lembas on the Tolkien Gateway website for an interesting read. One of the things you'll find is that the word lembas is Sindarin (one of the languages of the Elves) from the older lenn-mbass meaning journey-bread. In Quenya (another language of the Elves), it is called coimas which means life-bread.

Outside of the Elves, other races were seldom given lembas; but Frodo and Sam obtained it from Galadriel, who gave it to them at the beginning of their perilous quest. It would literally keep them alive and feed their will to carry on. Otherwise, they would have given up and died!

Interestingly, lembas is vile to evil creatures such as Gollum and the Orcs. They cannot stand it.

When I think of how lembas works, I cannot help but think of how Christ Jesus and his Word play the same role in my life. In fact, the Bible records this declaration of Jesus: "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (John 6:35).

Jesus feeds my will, gives me the strength to endure, and helps me accomplish things beyond mortal ability. Seriously, when I am serving people in my community, there are times in my natural body I have felt completely drained, having worshiped God with all my strength, and yet I gain a divine second or third wind to carry forward until the work is done and I can finally rest my head.

The potency of lembas is increased when it is not mingled with any other foods. I see this true also when I adhere to the authority of Holy Scripture and do not mix Truth with worldly philosophy. When I doubt and debate with God, I get weaker in spirit; but when I believe by faith what God has said, and press ahead through prayer and trust in him alone, his power increases in me.

I have also found that those who oppose the will of God are offended by Jesus Christ and his Word. It is vile to them and they cannot stand it. They will not have it. Even the mention of Biblical truth brings up distaste in their mouth (and I'm not talking about shoving it down their throat, only the casual mention of it). I've even heard some express it in that exact way. "I think I just threw up in my mouth," they say in response to any traditional or fundamental interpretation of Scripture.

But there are many, like myself, who are well blessed to have found the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ. Spiritually I am more satisfied than I've ever been and I would never want to go on this long and perilous journey called life without him. If you haven't already, you should try coming to him and believing in him. I believe you'll find his promise to be true! You will never go hungry or thirst again.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Power to Follow

Then Aragorn led the way, and such was the strength of his will in that hour that all the Dúnedain and their horses followed him. And indeed the love that the horses of the Rangers bore for their riders was so great that they were willing to face even the terror of the Door, if their master's hearts were steady as they walked beside them. But Arod, the horse of Rohan, refused the way, and he stood sweating and trembling in a fear that was grievous to see. Then Legolas laid his hands on his eyes and sang some words that went soft in the gloom, until he suffered himself to be led, and Legolas passed in. And there stood Gimli the Dwarf left all alone.

His knees shook, and he was wroth with himself. 'Here is a thing unheard of!' he said. 'An Elf will go underground and a Dwarf dare not!' With that he plunged in. But it seemed to him that he dragged his feet like lead over the threshold; and at once a blindness came upon him, even upon Gimli Glóin's son who had walked unafraid in many deep places of the world. 

- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, Chapter II

Following Aragorn was the errand of the Rangers, Legolas, Gimli, and the horses. It was not their duty to face the terror of the Door and take the Paths of the Dead; it was Aragorn's. So, why did they go with him? How did they muster the courage to follow him into a mountain haunted by ghosts?

In the passage above, several things are made plain about each follower:

  • The Dúnedain and their horses followed because of Aragorn's great strength of will.
  • The horses of the Rangers followed because of great love for their riders.
  • The horse Arod followed only after the touch of Legolas upon his eyes, along with words sung to him.
  • Gimli the Dwarf followed when he couldn't bear the thought of an Elf being more courageous than he to go underground; Dwarves were made for such things!

Earlier in the chapter, the Lady Éowyn gives one more motivation for the followers of Aragorn. She says to the returning king, They go only because they would not be parted from thee - because they love thee.

In life we will take up many errands to follow. We won't always play the role of the leader, nor should we. Others will have duties that do not belong to us, yet we will give ourselves to aid them because of our relationship and bond with them. We will let them lead us.

Love is one of our greatest motivators. It gives us the power to follow a leader. But before that, comes strength of will demonstrated by the leader. It is hard to follow someone who is not resolute, even when we love them. Therefore, the full power to follow is only realized when there is love for a leader who demonstrates great strength of will. Or is that really the full power?

Gimli gives us one more ounce of motivation: knowing who we are.

It has been said that the two most important moments in a person's life are the day they are born and the day they find out why they were born. When we begin to understand deeply how we entered the world, why we are here, what we are capable of, and where we are headed in the future, our fears can be overcome.

Following is scary business. Why? Because the quest is not ours to lead. We are not in full control. We have limited influence and knowledge, which makes things very uncomfortable for us. But, if we have a leader who is sure, a leader that we love, and a healthy understanding of who we are, we can face our doubts, overcome our shaking knees, and plunge into the dark right behind our leader.

On a spiritual level, I believe God created us to be with him and he invites us all to follow him on a great quest to tell everyone, everywhere, about his wondrous love. Jesus said, Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be (John 12:26, New International Version). But what will motivate us to serve and follow him? Fear is a certainty. Evil abounds and actively opposes God's righteousness.

I would propose that our power to follow God flows from the same things we see in the Grey Company that followed Aragorn: we can endure our fears because God is resolute; our love for him compels us to follow; and we know who we are!

Listen to these words that God spoke to Joshua, the successor of Moses who would lead the ancient Israelites into the Promised Land: 

Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. 

- Joshua 1:6-9, NIV

God commands Joshua to be strong and courageous. He tells him exactly what he will accomplish. He gives him precise instructions on what to fill his mind with and how to act. He commands him to be strong-willed by saying not to turn from the law of Moses to the right or the left and by not letting it depart from his mouth. Finally, he tells him not to be terrified or discouraged. Why? Because God would be with him wherever he went. Jesus' words centuries later would be an echo of this, And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20, NIV).

Not everyone could have had the power to follow Aragorn. Tolkien tells us, But when the dawn came, cold and pale, Aragorn rose at once, and he led the Company forth upon the journey of greatest haste and weariness that any among them had known, save he alone, and only his will held them to go on. No other mortal Men could have endured it, none but the Dúnedain of the North, and with them Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas of the Elves.

"Only his will held them to go on." It will ultimately be only those who recognize and submit to the will of God and his leadership that will follow him to the end. Love for God and self-awareness are key powers to begin the quest of following him; but when the darkness and gloom settle in, and the demons of the unseen realms manifest themselves, wreaking their destruction, the only power we have to endure is the unquestionable truth that God is with us and in him we place our hope and trust.

Today, will you accept the presence, leadership and authority of Christ in your life? Will you love him and commit yourself to serving by his side? And will you let him reveal to you who you really are?

I will end by leaving you a verse of Scripture the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus while he was imprisoned for spreading the message of Christ.

For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10, NIV).

The original Greek word for workmanship is poiema from which the English word poem is derived. If translated literally, it means "work of art." Think about that. We are God's work of art - his greatest poetry! 

Even so, that marvelous truth may not be enough to keep us following. Our power to follow God will be found in submitting ourselves to his strength of will and doing the good works he has prepared in advance for us to do.