The Magic of Eä
A multi-series on the varieties of magic and magical crafting in Middle-Earth and one method of implementing them into your GURPS campaign.
Part I: Introduction
When I first began this endeavor, I foolishly assumed that the 4 blank pages I set aside in my notebook and labelled ‘Magic’ would more than suffice for my needs. A few rules for conversions from MERP's magic system to GURPS, a couple of spell lists, racial magical traits, and templates/lenses would suffice.
I was woefully wrong.
I now sit here with an entire notebook’s worth of notes, more than a dozen books from GURPS, MERP, Rolemaster, and an entire banner’s worth of webpages for reference.
What was my big mistake you may ask? Well, as many of these things begin, it started with a simple question while I was musing about the specific peculiarities of magic in J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories.
“How did Sauron make a ring so powerful, why did its destruction cause him to be destroyed along with all the things it helped him make?”. This led of course to another few questions. “What magic in this system did he use to make it? Clearly this isn’t just simple Enchanting.” And “if Celebrimbor could also make Rings of Power, should we not have a system so that players with the right skills and abilities can also make Items of Power?’ This was clearly going to require another type of crafting or magic system not just some list of spells or enchantments.
My musings and this question made me think more broadly about the magic in the world of Eä and I realized that Magic pervades the entire world. It is in its very fabric. The entire universe was created by a song, clearly a magical one, and shaped and even corrupted by music and the voices of the Valar and their helpers the Maiar. Was this also not a type of magic? Would not some of the players want to take part in the wars and conflicts this magic resulted in? Epic battles that changed the very geography of the world? I was beginning to get nervous about my little plan to create a set of rules for Middle-Earth Role-players. Perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chew.
So, I took out my trusty notepad and begin to write down a few concrete episodes of ‘Magic’ to see if there were common threads and what the differences were. If this was going to require one, three, or ten different systems. How complex was this problem? Could someone as concise and thoughtful as Professor Tolkien just made a hodgepodge of magic without rhyme or reason? I thought it very unlikely indeed.
I jotted down Sauron’s ring and The Ainulindalë, (the Song of Creation), as I mentioned before, but I also thought about Gandalf, one of the Istari, a maia servant of the Valar. How he was unable to open the runed gates of Moria until he solved the riddle? And the gates themselves, was this not some other kind of magic that followed its own set of rules? I recalled amongst the gifts given by Galadriel to the Fellowship, the Phial which held the Light of Eärendil. How could she put the light in a phial? Was it the same magic that Gandalf used to fight the Balrog or something different? I then thought about the smooth, impregnable walls of Isengard that withstood the savages of war, and time seemingly untouched and impregnable. What enchantments were used in their formation by the Numenoreans before the founding of Gondor? The only shred of simplicity seemed to be in the cloaks given to the Fellowship. There. Magic Cloaks, that was magic right? Or was it simply infinitely fine craftsmanship by the elves’ immortal hands?
I was perplexed and intrigued. I am not one to give up so easily in my endeavors and yet I had begun to get a sinking feeling in my stomach that there was in fact simply a dog’s breakfast of complex and even conflicting magic systems in this world.
Until the answer to another mystery began to unwind the gordian knot in my mind.
“Where were all the mages?”
The first thing a role-playing game player notices in the stories is the seemingly complete lack of mages in Tolkien’s world. No mages colleges, no ‘Ye Olde Magik Shoppe’ on the corner, no magic potion vendors hawking alchemical compounds, no used magic weapon salesmen, etc. For a world created by and permeated with magic, there sure seems to be a dearth of well, actual magicians. Where were the sorcerers’ flinging fireballs and calling down lighting storms to smite their enemies?
This train of thought, and the study it entailed began to weave a beautiful tapestry. For the first time since reading the books, I began to glimpse behind the curtains and saw how the entire system truly was really one great universe of Magic. Like the tale of the blind men each describing an elephant by touching only one part of it, I had failed to see the symmetry and unity of the complex whole.
Magic in Middle-Earth can be extremely powerful, but it has a cost. The one, unbreakable rule of all the examples above is that each one came at a cost to the caster. Time, life essence, or corruption. Sometimes all three. Magic in Middle-Earth is not some idle pastime for the meddler. It requires sacrifice and diligence. The beings that crafted Arda put their very essences into its creation, those that put the most into its creation became as bound to it as Sauron to his ring. Tom Bombadil and Goldberry are examples of beings that are inextricably bound to places in this way. They are the personification of their parts of Arda. Their creations are as much a part of them as they are of it.
All magic must maintain The Balance of Things, or it corrupts its user and the world itself. Corruption itself is part of the Balance. Even the slightest shift can be felt by those sensitive to such things, and like tremors on a spider’s web, the slightest vibration can attract the unwanted attention of the Dark Lord’s servants. The powerful become tempted with forbidden knowledge, those that resist are hunted and killed. The road to magical knowledge is slow and few mortals have time to master more than a few spells or cantrips. The price to learn is steep and the slope is slippery. The Balance of Things is not a question of Good vs. Evil, but Harmony vs. Dissonance.
During most of its history magical knowledge in Middle-Earth is hidden, forbidden, or long forgotten. Only in a few periods such as in the First Age and later in Eregion of the Second Age was magic prolific. The Noldo were busy creating their cities of white towers and rings of power, the men of Numenor crafted powerful items for war and conquest of the lands they felt were their birthright, while the dwarves hammered magical metals and stone into wonderous shapes, emblazoned with runes of incredible power that would long outlast their creators. Less known civilization such as the Pukel Men put spirits into their stone watchers to act as guardians of their lands, and the Daen Coentis were taught much that could be called magic by the briefly repentant Sauron deep in the vales of the White Mountains. But throughout the majority of its history, most of this knowledge was lost to the people of Arda and only remained in legends and a few family heirlooms in the halls of kings, lost under piles of gold in some dragon’s horde, or fading in some rotting tome under the rubble of old stone ruins.
I believe I have created a holistic magical system can be used in a Middle-Earth campaign that takes these considerations of seemingly different types of magic and creates an underlying, unified, interconnected system. Again, this is only one possible explanation of the ‘metaphysics’ behind the magic with a focus on allowing Gamemasters and players to see the unique continuity and the connection between all the types of magic and use it in their campaign in whatever age or power level they choose. It is not canon. It is specifically designed for use with GURPS Fourth Edition rules in mind though I believe that any GM worth their salt should be able to use it with another system if that is their preference.
I recognize that this will be a constant work in progress, and I intend to use feedback to adjust and hopefully improve upon this work. Perhaps it will inspire someone to do something greater or do the setting more justice, but I found little of use when I searched for my own campaign so I will do my best. I do not take ownership of anything that is not mine alone. I am aware that I am building much on the shoulders of others.
In Part II, I will define the different types of Magical Energy that I believe constitute a continuum along with an infographic that should allow those that prefer visuals to get a better grasp of the overall concept before beginning with the first magic type, that used by the greatest of Eä’s beings, The Valar, and rules to implement their use or to simulate the struggles of the First Age to the War of the Wrath. This will require some testing and I have precious little time to do so, and I fully expect revisions of the rules in the future.
P.S. I cannot recommend enough reading Other Hands and Other Minds if you are truly interested in discourse on the subject. What I have read so far has been inspirational and useful beyond words. I am not done with my reading, but my nature does not allow to stand idly by while something needs doing and my reading list grows, and time is short. Make hay will the sun shines as they say…