Exclusive Interview with Tales from Wilderland
Author Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is Line Developer for Cubicle 7 Publishing’s Dr. Who: Adventures in Space and Time and The Laundry Files. He’s made numerous contributions to many role-playing games over the years, including the classic science fiction game Traveller, Trails of Cthulhu and the esoteric game of what it means to both human and divine, Nobilis. Mr. Ryder-Hanranah was kind enough to spare some of his time and give the Middle-earth Network a peek inside the monumental task of writing the first supplement for The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild, entitled Tales from Wilderland. It is a 160-page, full color supplement that consists of seven adventures that can be combined into a single epic journey across Wilderlands in an effort to stem the growing strength of the Shadow.
James: Before we step into the Wild, I’d like to thank you for taking time out for Legendarium Media. Tell us about your journey as a role-playing gamer, writer and eventual designer. Your credits include a diverse library of games. You’ve worked on everything from popular liscensed properties like Middle-earth, Dr. Who and Primeval to classic gaming staples like Cthluhu and Traveller, to truly unique games like the cerebral and spiritual Nobilis. You seem to have a finger in every pie! Where did it all begin and how did it all come to be as it is now?
Gareth: I could claim it was all part of a cunning plan, but that would be a blatant lie. I started out writing short scenarios for role-playing conventions, and got a few small freelancing assignments based on that work. I never intended to make a career out of it. I actually started out as a programmer, and intended to keep that as my day job and do a little writing on the side. Then – wow, nearly ten years ago – the IT company I was working for cut a large chunk of the staff. I had three months’ salary saved, so I decided to postpone getting a real job and try writing full-time.
Well, it’s worked so far.
Back in 2009, I convinced Cubicle 7 to let me write the Laundry RPG, based on the novels by Charles Stross. That led to a job there as line developer for the Laundry Files game, and that expanded into managing the Primeval and Doctor Who lines too. Cubicle 7 also picked up the Lord of the Rings license in association with Sophisticated Games, so I was well positioned to fulfil a long-held ambition of mine to work on a Tolkien-inspired game.
J: While you’ve been absolutely critical in the development of role-playing games of other liscensed properties, including the table-top adaptation of the beloved and enduring Dr. Who television series, I’d imagine that writing in Middle-earth is a bit of a different beast. When it came time to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, I suppose), how did you go about preparing for such a monumental task? Just contributing to Middle-earth a huge endeavor, but the groundwork laid by Mr. Nepitello’s core set material has got to set the bar even higher.
G: Reading The Lord of the Rings was a family tradition, so I’ve been a Tolkien fan since the age of eight. I reread LOTR every year or so, and I’d read a lot of secondary material like the History of Middle-Earth books. I reread the Hobbit before starting work on Tales from Wilderland, but that was just to have JRRT’s writing style fresh in my mind.
The main preparation I did was to look a bit more at Tolkien’s own inspirations. Francesco urged me to read William Morris and Beowulf and so on, which was very useful. I also spent a while poking at history books for reference.
J: Can you give readers unfamiliar with Tales of Wilderland an overview of what this product brings to Adventures Over The Edge of the Wild? What was the desicision making process involved that made everyone at Cubicle 7 Publishing decide to go with an adventure-supplement rather than the more common first supplement types such as a general “player’s guide” or Culture-focused book? Once the choice was made and the adventures began to take shape, what guided your pen as you developed these seven adventures into one collective story?
G: I can’t recall the exact chain of reasoning. I certainly think that an adventure anthology is always a great first release for a game, as it shows gamemasters how the game is designed to be played and allows those who are short on time to start campaigns. Tabletop roleplaying games have to compete with the instant gratification of computer games, so anything that makes a gamemaster’s role easier is great.
The original concept of the book was a six-adventure series, with each adventure corresponding to one of the Heroic Cultures in Wilderland – Hobbits, Beornings, Bardings, Woodmen, Dwarves and Elves. I wanted there to be a single overarching plot linking them together, so that called for a villain. I couldn’t use the Ringwraiths, as they play a part in the Darkening of Mirkwood campaign, so instead – very gingerly! – I came up with an original villain, a corrupt spirit called the Gibbet King that fled the ruin of Dol Guldur and now plots to conquer Dale.
Writing the adventures went tremendously smoothly. Several of them really wrote themselves. The biggest stumbling block was the dream sequence/spiritual battle in Those Who Tarry No Longer, as it’s hard to get that sort of dream reality right. You have to thread a narrow path between ‘cheesy’ and ‘incomprehensibly obscure’, and I really hope I got the balance right.
Finally, we added a seventh adventure to tie in with the scenario in the Loremaster’s Guide. “The Marsh-Bell” starts and ends in Dale, and “Of Herbs and Stewed Hobbit” – the original first adventure in Tales – starts west of Mirkwood. We wanted to provide a reason for the player characters to be on the other side of the forest, hence “Don’t Leave The Path”.
J: As I mentioned before, The One Ring sets a high bar in how accurately and deeply it reflects the unique and subtle aspects of Middle-earth that make Tolkien’s work a singular setting. When writing Tales, what were some chief things you did to ground these adventures in Middle-earth, beyond settings and cultures? Did you find yourself having difficulty with any of the choices you made as Tales from Wilderland took shape and you started to fill in the “blank pages” between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings?
G: For each adventure, I had a particular piece of text from Tolkien that I used as a touchstone. If the feel of the adventure evoked that text, I knew I was on the right track. My touchstone for ‘Kinstrife & Dark Tidings’, for example, was the tale of Turin, so it’s full of outlaws, murders and very bad decisions. The Crossings of Celduin was inspired by the Battle of Helm’s Deep and so on. Anchoring each adventure like that ensured they always felt like Middle-Earth.
(As an aside, that approach won’t work for every adventure. Something like a murder mystery will need to be grounded in another way, as there isn’t a suitable ‘anchor text’ in Tolkien’s writings.)
Most of the big problems in the writing of the adventures stem from the supernatural elements. ‘Those Who Tarry No Longer’, for example, deals with the wraith-world and the spiritual side of Middle-Earth. In a novel, you can control how much the protagonist sees, and you can decide how many questions to answer. Frodo glimpses Glorfindel shining at the ford, Gandalf explains that Glorfindel is a powerful elf-lord and so is especially visible on the other side, and Frodo accepts that answer. In an RPG, you have to expect more questions and experimentation on the part of the players – what exactly is visible in the wraith-world? Can you tell one shimmering figure from another? How does spiritual combat work?
The villain of the piece, the Gibbet King, was another worry. He had to be sinister and inhuman because we wanted to emulate the major villains in Lord of the Rings, but then we didn’t want him to obviously be a low-budget copy of Sauron, or a Ringwraith version of the fifth Beatle. He ended up being a former slave of the Necromancer because that connected him to the canon bad guys but didn’t force them to be involved in the adventures. (If the Gibbet King was still working for Sauron directly, it would undermine the return of the Nazgul to Dol Guldur. Sending one servant to reclaim one’s former fortress is fine; sending a second when the first fails is a little too saturday morning cartoon villain crying “curses, foiled again!”)
Really, anything beyond the most mundane elements was very carefully considered. Everything had to feel right. (Names are a big part of that – Tolkien’s choice of place names and character names is very hard to emulate, but you have to try to get it right.
J: Cubicle 7 Publishing has long been very supportive of their fans and fan-created content. This is clearly reflected in the acknowledgment of Luke Walker’s house rules and how they were adapted for this supplement, as mentioned in the credits of Tales from Wilderland. How has the fan reaction and passion for the game influenced the growth and evolution The One Ring?
G: We’re as supportive and open as we can be, bearing in mind we’re bound by the terms of the license. I’d say that fan passion has sustained the game instead of influencing it – we haven’t changed our plans much, but fan material has filled the gaps between official releases. The vocal fans also help us zero in on areas of weakness, like the organisation of the rules, and the fans (especially James R Brown) helped us produce a super-detailed index in response.
J: Finally, Mr. Ryder-Hanrahan, can you give us a hint of what’s to come for the future of The One Ring? The Lake-Town Sourcebook and Lore-Master screen was on sale at this year’s Gen Con and we’ve heard all manner of hints regarding the mysterious Darkening of Mirkwood – not to mention Jon Hodgson’s slip of the tongue with the title of Heart of the Wild. Can you shed a little light on these shadows?
G: As promised in the Loremaster’s Guide, the Darkening of Mirkwood is our big Wilderland campaign book – it covers thirty years of play, from the first hints of the returning Shadow to the potential destruction of the Woodmen as a culture. The Nazgul return to Dol Guldur, and stir up all the evils of the forest against the Free Peoples. Each year of the campaign has events and adventures for the player characters to get involved in, but there’s also a lot of emphasis on being part of a culture, defending a homestead and so on. Plus, since the adventure is thirty years long, human player characters will end up retiring and handing the mantle of adventurer onto their children.