The Tolkien Letter that Every Lover of Middle-earth Must Read

A Pilgrim in Narnia

It is sort of a trick, isn’t it? Any true Tolkien fan will say that every page in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien is essential. However, not everyone enjoys letters as much as I do. Some might absolutely love The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but don’t find great joy peeking into the lives of authors by reading their mail. I may well be the odd man out.

However, embedded in the bits and pieces of correspondence that remain are some absolute gems. It is in these letters that we discover that Tolkien supported C.S. Lewis in his first foray into fiction. We see the heart-crushing weight of work that Tolkien was faced with, and the struggles that he had to complete The Lord of the Rings. And we have the moments, finally, when he finished his work and made it ready for publication. The letters…

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Yet Another Half-orc Hero

Character sheet (screenshot from Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition)

Shortly after I blogged about My Big Dumb Ugly Half-orc Hero from the Neverwinter Nights video game I waxed nostalgic and decided to try playing Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition as a Half-orc Barbarian. In that short amount of time I’ve gotten pretty far in the game with this character, but I have to say it’s not all just him. Well, a lot of it is, and it’s not merely due to brute strength. But damn if I didn’t assemble a strong party as well.

His merry band of mercenaries currently consists of Viconia, the Drow Cleric, Kagain the Dwarven Fighter, Imoen the Human Thief, Garrick the Human Bard, and Neera the Half-elven Wild Mage. This is not my first time playing the enhanced version of this game, but I gotta say it’s the first time I could really appreciate the advanced AI. Sometimes when these guys encounter hostiles all I have to do is sit back and watch them go to work.


The Friendly Arm (screenshot from Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition)

****** SPOILERS AHEAD ******

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Since my Bhaalspawn is chaotic neutral, he didn’t spend too much time with Khalid and Jaheira. In fact, he left them at the Jovial Juggler in Beregost and went off to do his own thing. They wanted to get to Nashkel as soon as possible, but I preferred to hold off on that for a bit while I finished some side quests. Then, even when we did finally get to Nashkel, we went to the carnival first. After all, who cares about some silly old mines?

Anyway, by now I had the party I thought I might finish the game with, but there was one more thing I had to do before looking into the iron shortage and that was to help Minsc and Boo save Dynaheir. I love Minsc, and the only reason I would end up removing him from the party after helping him complete his quest was to make room for a tougher fighter, namely Kagain.

But for now I left the Dwarf in Nashkel and the rest of us journeyed to the Gnoll Stronghold. Then, in what I must say was a mission of near surgical precision, we rescued Dynaheir from the pit she was imprisoned in and said our farewells to both her and Minsc, leaving him only a two-handed sword and of course, his beloved miniature giant space hamster. This of course meant we were only five as we headed back, but I wasn’t worried.

It wasn’t even having done this quest before with a different party that made it so easy this time around, except for the fact that I now knew enough to skirt around the Xvart village (time enough for that quagmire later on). But this meant I was taking a different route; one I wasn’t familiar with. To be honest, the real reason I wasn’t worried was that for once I didn’t have Khalid as a party member. In my opinion he’s practically useless as a Fighter. He might’ve made a better Bard. Also, Viconia taking Jaheira’s place as the party’s healer turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in this game. With the Ankheg Plate Mail and Stupefier Mace she’s practically invincible, and she has a much wider range of spells, not to mention the Turn Undead ability which Jaheira lacks as a Fighter/Druid. The only thing I miss is the often witty banter the Half-elven couple brought to the party. But Viconia has a few of her own quirky interactions with some of the other NPCs, and Neera has personality enough for them all.

Once safely back in Nashkel I picked up Kagain where I’d left him by the barracks, and we all went to the inn. If you’ve gotten this far in the game (and honestly if you haven’t you shouldn’t be reading this), then you know what happens next. A hapless bounty hunter messed with the wrong mercenary group. We tore her apart in mere seconds. It was epic.

By now the party had a reputation of 9 (due to Viconia’s inclusion in the group), so after my Bhaalspawn’s first nightmare he woke up the following morning with the Larloch’s Minor Drain ability. I purposely avoided getting the rep up to 10 so that that would be the case, but now at last my reluctant hero could begin his long redemptive arc, starting with sorting out the mines and the rotting metal situation.

I was astonished at how quickly we blew through those underground passages which had proved so deadly to parties I’d gone into them with in the past. Before I knew it Mulahey was dead at my feet and we were off to collect our reward. Now that’s all sorted, Tranzig is dead as well, and we’re bandit hunting in the Peldvale. The party’s rep is back up to 10 again, and my Half-orc Hero has had his second nightmare and gained the Cure Light Wounds ability.

In conclusion I’d just like to also mention that the Enhanced Edition appears to have made Bards much more useful. In most encounters, Garrick just stands there singing, and yet I consider him one of the most valuable members of this mercenary group. He’s also cheerful and fun to have around, like Imoen and Neera, especially in contrast with the other three party members. Also, the voice I chose for my Bhaalspawn (MALE6) is perfect. It’s one of the newer ones, and I’m absolutely in love with it.


Ballads of War – Class Column: Bard

Ron the DM

   Weavers of magic, song, poetry and lore – lock up your loved ones as the Bard enters the tavern to make hearts swoon, adventurers bolstered for battle and townsfolk told of daring heroics….

Today I want to talk about the Bard. I had thought about doing class columns for the blog, and wasn’t entirely sure on the route I wanted to go: mechanics? or lore? And I thought to myself: why not both? So to kick us off in our class columns is the bard. 

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Dungeon Masters Helping Each Other

Adventures in Nerdery

About a week ago I got into a conversation with a couple of people on Twitter about being a Dungeon Master and how it’s essentially a very solitary role. It all started because I felt a hankering to create a new campaign setting, but with a twist. I wanted to create it with other DMs. I wanted input from other Dungeon Masters, and for each of us to build our own sections of this world that we would eventually be able to show to players. Like a kind of gift to the rpg and D&D community. Not a setting devised and created by one person, but a collective of DMs all putting their unique stamp on it, creating a wholly new and different world where each nation feels different than the other. I thought if nothing else it would be a fun exercise and chance to meet and learn from…

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My Big Dumb Ugly Half-orc Hero

Neverwinter Nights by BioWare

I play Neverwinter Nights a lot, and sometimes I come up with player characters for that game that I end up really wanting to play in a tabletop session of D&D. I never thought one of them would be a stereotypical big dumb ugly half-orc, but there you go.

Normally I would never create a PC with an Intelligence lower than 10, but this time on a whim I played through the first chapter of the NWN Original Campaign as a Half-Orc Barbarian named Gulash with an intelligence of 8. It was hilarious! I’ll explain why in a moment, but first, a little more about the character.

While I know that good-looking intelligent, articulate half-orcs are all the rage now (here’s looking at you, Fjord), Neverwinter Nights already has a supporting character who’s an articulate half-orc barbarian, the NPC Daelan, whom you can hire as a henchman, so keeping that in mind you might understand why I preferred to go the other way with this character.

But don’t get me wrong. Gulash is in no way a mindless, unthinking brute. In fact, he has a kind heart and he’s also pretty savvy with a wisdom score of 12. That’s actually one of the things that make me think he’d be great as a PC that I could develop more freely in a real D&D roleplaying scenario. I think a lot of his enemies would underestimate him, calculating only his strength in their assessment of the threat he could potentially pose to them. He’d also be fun to roleplay.

Anyway, for Gulash’s voice I chose from the included voice sets one called Dumb Hero which has some funny lines such as “I’m gonna rip your head off and make it my puppet!” Then, after reading the warning during character creation that lets you know an intelligence lower than 9 means your character can’t speak properly, I proceeded to play, only to be pleasantly surprised when I discovered just what that meant.

As I said, I’d played the game many times before with all sorts of different characters, so I was familiar with nearly all of the dialogue interactions, but now instead of saying, for example “I need to speak to you,” my character would say something like “Me want talk at you”. But funniest of all were the reactions from many of the NPCs when my character spoke to them. They might say something like, “Oh, I see you are a bit slow, friend.” I love that the game’s creators took the time to do this. Unfortunately, this is not true of all modules, including Shadows of Undrentide. It’s understandable though, having to write two versions of all the dialogue in the game would no doubt add considerably to the overhead.

Another thing that made game play a bit different for me this time around was Gulash’s low charisma score. In NWN, half-orcs take a -1 penalty to charisma and I was unwilling to spend any extra points to mitigate that because I wanted him to be a tank. So any extra points I had went into strength, constitution, and dexterity (and the aforementioned wisdom score, of course, to help protect him from mind-affecting spells).

A charisma score of only 9 has some pretty significant consequences in NWN, as I was soon to learn.

Take Persuasion, for example. This skill is charisma-based and very important to game play, particularly insofar as it can be used to open up side quests that would normally be closed to all but a very few specific types of character (such as those belonging to a particular class; though most of the time it appears to have more to do with the PC’s alignment). Less side quests mean less experience points, so it makes sense that you’d want to take on odd jobs, especially if they paid well.

***** SPOILERS AHEAD *****

One such side quest is offered by Judge Oleff in the Halls of Justice. If you’re a lawful good cleric you probably don’t need a high charisma or persuade skill to get the quest, which involves finding the lost tombs of Halueth Never and his adventuring companions. And while it certainly makes a lot of sense that stuffy old Oleff wouldn’t entrust such a sacred task to a chaotic, brutish half-orc barbarian who can’t even speak properly, it’s a great side quest featuring some pretty powerful undead and I really wanted to see how Gulash fared in it. So I gave persuasion a shot, and naturally failed.

In NWN once you fail a persuasion check with a particular character you can’t succeed with them if you try again until you’ve increased your persuasion skill, which, barring the use of a magical item, means after you’ve leveled up again. But when your character is a dumbass barbarian, you don’t get many skill points to waste on things like persuasion, especially when 1 point in persuasion would cost you 2 skill points. Makes sense in terms of roleplaying though. Barbarians tend to persuade with their fists. Still, a few levels later I did finally add an extra point in persuasion, and with a nymph cloak I bought at the auction in the Seedy Tavern, I was finally able to convince Judge Oleff I was the right man–er, half-orc for the job.

Another consequence I wasn’t expecting from having such a low charisma score was actually kind of more sad than funny. After successfully retrieving his first Waterdhavian creature, Gulash decided to celebrate at the Moonstone Mask. After getting a writ from Oleff that declared him plague-free, and buying his Pass Coin to get upstairs, he chose a pretty halfling lass as his companion for the night. But all he could get out of her was a quest… she refused to even consider bedding him because he was so damned ugly.

*****END SPOILERS*****

Overall it’s been a fun (and often funny) experience playing Gulash. It was sort of refreshing to not be squishy, to hack and slash my way through the Neverwinter Nights Original Campaign instead of relying on stealth and magic. I think the only thing I’ll do differently if I play this character in a tabletop D&D game is to make my big dumb ugly half-orc hero a female. Hulking musclebound brutish female half-orc barbarians are apparently in short supply these days. Everyone wants to be sexy, I guess. But this one will rip your head off and make it her puppet, and that’s sexy enough for me.

Remembering the Bard

Portrait of Robert Burns, 1787

When most people encounter the epithet “the Bard” in text or speech, they automatically assume it refers to William Shakespeare, who is known as the Bard of Avon. But there is another who has acquired that particular sobriquet, and deservedly so. I’m of course talking about Robert Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire, and the national poet of Scotland.

Perhaps most well known for having written the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne”, that nostalgic ditty only half understood by so many and yet sung the world over on New Year’s Eve, Rabbie, as he is often affectionately called, was born in 1759 near Ayr on the 25th of January, the son of a tenant farmer. Later hailed as a folk hero and collector of Scottish folk songs as well as Scotland’s national poet, the Bard “is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, and after his death he became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism” [Wikipedia].

You may know him by a few other of his poems which have been set to music, such as A Red, Red Rose, Ae Fond Kiss, and my personal favourite, The Banks O’ Doon, which gave us the song “Ye Banks and Braes”. But if you don’t, don’t worry. I put together a YouTube playlist for Burns Night you can grab a wee listen of. Just note that I also added a number of songs that he didn’t write the lyrics to, as part of an overall celebration of Scottish culture, music, and history.

And what is Burns Night ye might well ask? Well, ’tis first and foremost a celebration of Rabbie’s life and legacy amidst a feast known as a Burns supper, replete with Scottish food and music, a toast with fine Scotch whisky, and of course, readings of the Bard’s poetry and singing of his songs. Central to the supper is almost always the haggis, Scotland’s national dish, a savoury meat pudding which Burns eulogized most eloquently in his famed poem Address to a Haggis:

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my airm.
Haggis on a platter – By Kim Traynor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18155691

Yet the Burns supper is not merely a celebration of the Bard’s birthday, confined to that one night only. It can be enjoyed anytime, and regardless of whether or not one is Scottish. One need only have an appreciation for the works of the Bard and/or Scottish music, poetry, food, and culture in general, just as the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” that ends the feast isn’t only for the year’s end, as reminiscing about days gone by is a perennial thing not necessarily tied to any season or date on a calendar.

If you’d like to learn more about Robert Burns, his works, and the traditions of Burns Night and its celebratory supper, below you will find a few good links, as well as a fascinating documentary video of a modern facial reconstruction of the Bard as he might have actually looked in life.

How I Became a Dungeon Master

Some of my D&D stuff from not so long ago

When I started as a player of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in middle school, as an androgynous half-elf thief named Valerian (I was very much a fan of the movie Dragonslayer), I couldn’t help but imagine myself in the role of Dungeon Master. It not only looked like fun, it seemed right up my alley. I’d always been a storyteller, from the time I was small.

So back home I tried to start a D&D game of my own. I created worlds and characters and scenarios and imagined prospective players playing them out. I roped my friends who had never even heard of roleplaying in and ran one-on-one adventures for them. But I was never able to get a group together. I didn’t really mind though, because it was great to just be able to play; to take my characters to the next level, and the next, and tell their stories to the DM and the other players.

See, players are storytellers, too. Never forget that. And a good DM helps them tell their stories. Well, I was blessed with good DMs, and sometimes I longed to be one of them, though if given a choice between one or the other I would’ve chosen to remain a player. Still, ideally I would’ve liked to have been both, roleplaying in one campaign and running another. But as it turned out, that was never meant to be.

Anyway, I continued to gather materials and resources, study manuals and modules, invent worlds and monsters and scenarios, map areas and come up with side-quests. All for imaginary players who might never materialize.

Then I got distracted by life, as did the other players in our adventuring group, and even to a certain extent, our DM. I think he started to get discouraged by the ever-increasing scheduling difficulties. Our last session lacked closure. We never picked that storyline up again. We never all got together in that capacity again. It was like a television series got cancelled mid-season before it could be wrapped up.

By the time I got back into D&D again I was a college dropout. Third edition had introduced the d20 system. That piqued my interest. I created a Bard character I was excited to play. But no one I knew was interested in D&D anymore. So once again I tried to start my own game. I did my best to recruit players, and was mildly successful. Underwhelmingly successful, to be honest.

I went back to sleep. Years went by. Fourth edition came and went. I read the online comments on it with passing interest. I got my D&D fix by playing video games like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights.

Then 5e made its quiet debut. I couldn’t ignore the improvements. The streamlined game mechanics. The elegant balance between combat and roleplay. I started to ask around, and lo and behold, others had suddenly become interested in D&D again. Next thing I knew I was reluctantly agreeing to DM for a local would-be mercenary party when what I really wanted to do was bring my Bard PC to life. Oh cruel fate!

No matter–that character would be the first NPC the party met. Sometimes you just have to take what life offers you, and make the most of it. 😉