Monday, March 4, 2013

Good, evil and magic in the world of the Palantir Commission

I realized after starting a Middle-Earth RPG campaign that the Middle-Earth universe, although very deep in some aspects, was also very shallow for anything that doesn't directly support the narrative of the canonical stories. The economy makes no sense, for example. The MERP universe merely has overlayed a D&D world over known names of places and beasts. I kept less than 10% of the content of the MERP module "The Palantir Quest": I'm redrawing maps, and essentially changing the nature of the adventure path altogether. The original module and adventure felt like an old Forgotten Realm module. This article is about reconciling fantasy and Tolkien's work.  Gelatinous cubes don't HAVE to exist in Middle-Earth, but there ought to be a way to have cool magic going on even when Galdalf isn't around. 

What is Good, Evil, and why it matters?

I tend to avoid putting an absolute good and evil in my game worlds. I have seen the whole thing as a clash of world views and ethical systems. However, in the Tolkien mythology, there is Iluvatar and then there is Morgoth. Morgoth, out of spite, has made the destruction of Iluvatar's vision his personal goal. In this world, there is a one-dimensional axis on which everything gets a non-distorted projection. Good refers to the work of Iluvatars, the valars and the construction of harmony of creation into Arda. Evil refers to the ilk of the faction that endeavors to undermine, mare and disrupt the harmony of creation. 

Interestingly, good and evil have a very dispassionate outlook on the value of life: life is just a mean to an end and the distinction really comes down to a sense of aesthetics. The whole thing matters because magic is bound to this struggle, and that the most exciting stories to be written in this world are also tales of this battle between two entities disagreeing on what constitutes a "nice" creation.

Where does magic come from?

Magic refers to a set of reality altering forces that are not innate to most living creatures. The valars and their maiars have some, and sometime grant it if it suits their purposes. If magic was widely available, the valars and the maiars would no longer be special: everyone would get access to the means to bend the creation of Illuvatar to their whims. Magic is not meant to be widely available no more than billionaires should be interested in handing millions of dollars to everyone around them.

Magic is granted by powers which are invisible, often indifferent to the affairs of the living. The presence of magic is sporadic, somewhat inconsistent and subtle. Whoever grants magic to living being does it with a purpose: there are no free-lancers in the world of magic. However, many people capable of magic may not understand their place in the larger picture.

What is the shadow world?

Arda was created as a physical representation of the great music of Illuvatar. The physical world is a mere projection of a thought. The real world is out-there. This is known as the shadow world by physical being. It is in fact some kind of ether. Physical being capable of seeing into the shadow world sees only shadows, hence the name. 

In the shadow world, only objects and being touched by the valars can be seen with more details than there mere outlines. This essence is usually bound to object or being in the physical world. The soul of the living travel through the shadow world on their way to the Halls of Mandos (the afterlife). Many souls are bound to the physical world in a way or another. This makes of them wraiths, and wraiths do not enjoy the physical world at all. Magic operates on the physical world through the shadow world. Someone capable to see into the shadow world would be able to "see" spells and the enchantment of objects as pattern of light in a world otherwise made of black outlines.

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