Warning this article contains spoilers for the Lord of the Rings novels (throughout), and some of the over-arching plot arcs created for Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game (later on, with further warning).
“The enemy? His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is, where he came from. And if he was really evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home. If he would not rather have stayed there in peace. War will make corpses of us all.” (Faramir, plagiarised from Sam Gamgee, via Peter Jackson)
Apart from those who dislike “excessive” description of what an individual mountain/tree/house looks like, one of the most frequent criticisms I see levelled at Tolkien’s writing, is that his characters are too black-and-white.
Aragorn, of course, is the pinnacle of nobility, strong, calm, and selfless. Despite what Peter Jackson would have you believe, he is not the reluctant hero, but a man who has spent his entire life preparing to take the Throne of Gondor, and is ready to do so – he will allow no selfish or dark thoughts to threaten his progress towards his goal, and only puts it aside temporarily in a quest to protect the Ringbearer who holds in his hands the fate of all the free peoples.
Beyond that though, it’s a lot more complex. Boromir may have fallen into evil for a while, but he clearly rallied at the last moment, sentinel defended a number of attacks, and then discarded himself to deal 2 damage to each enemy in play.
For those who still find the towering figures of the third age insufficiently 3-dimensional, a wander back into the times of the Silmarillion reveals any number of troubled and complex figures, driven by powerful forces and great pain. Try telling Turin Turambar that Tolkien doesn’t know how to write a hero filled with conflict, flaws, or darkness.
Whatever your feelings on the characters that Tolkien created, the designers of Lord of the Rings the card game have a slightly different challenge – first of all, they have to find a way to portray the complexities of character that do exist in a game context, and secondly they have to create their own characters and tales that feel true to Tolkien’s world. Those are the two things I want to talk about today.
Saruman the White, head of the order of the Istarii, and a mighty Maiar sent to Middle Earth for the aid of the free peoples. Of course, we all know that he went bad in the end, but for a long time, he at least seemed to be working on the side of good (although from watching the White Council scenes in the Hobbit films, you would have to wonder how everyone else missed what he was up to…)
FFG depicted Saruman’s ‘assistance’ through a Doomed player-card. An ally with powerful stats and a fairly low cost, but offset by a steady ramp in everyone’s threat every time you play him. Personally, I don’t find Saruman’s abilities quite worth the trade-off (my decks either have too much threat already, or they care too much about keeping it down), but it’s certainly an interesting approach. At least the ally version doesn’t mess you up as much as when he reappears as an enemy in Treason of Saruman (the title was a warning!)
Grima Wormtongue is another figure who fans of the books or the films will struggle to see as anything much besides a villain. However, he has appeared in 3 very different guises in the card-game: As a hero, an enemy, and an objective ally.
In Hero form, Grima takes the Isengard trait alongside the Rohan one and, given the lack of other Rohan cards in Lore (just Gleowine iirc), and his focus on the Doomed Mechanic, he definitely leans more towards the Isengard side of things than towards synergy with his homeland.
His Enemy version is one of those annoying cards that looks feeble in turns of his printed stats, but has a nasty effect that’s remarkably hard to nullify, simply because of his ability to slink off back to the encounter deck, and throw some other pain your way.
The card I find most interesting for Grima though, is his objective ally form. As an objective ally, he can quest, attack, or defend like any other player card, albeit with meagre stats. He also has an ability, providing you with card-draw, which everyone knows is one of the most powerful effects in the game, right?
Well, it depends. As much as we normally love card-draw, Objective Ally Grima appears in the Voice of Isengard, perfectly timed to synchronise with the arrival of the Dunlendings, who punish you for having lots of cards in hand, and for drawing cards. Is Grima really helping you? Or is he already doing his best to undermine you?
The concept of this card that might be working for you, and might be working against you was taken to another level with the rise of the double-sided card. The most obvious character from Tolkien’s lore to be given this treatment is Gollum/Smeagol.
Gollum has appeared several times in the life of the game – the original Mirkwood cycle began with “The Hunt For Gollum” and by the time the Heroes reached the Dead Marshes, they had tracked him down, earning themselves a burden to drag around for the last two scenarios.
It was only when Gollum re-appeared for Land of Shadow, the second of the two Saga boxes to cover The Two Towers, that this was really taken to the next level. Land of Shadow Gollum starts out as a remarkably resilient enemy (the quest card gives him randomised defence boosts which really get in the way of trying to take him down) who can – ultimately – be defeated, and flipped over to the objective-ally Smeagol. Smeagol is now an objective ally, someone who will help the players, guiding them through the Dead Marshes. Even then though, you need to be careful, as an unfortunately-timed treachery, or a poor quest phase, can flip him back to Gollum again at a moment’s notice.
My first instinct is to dislike double-sided cards as excessively fiddly. However, what the designers have done here just seems to fit really well from a narrative perspective: I felt like this scenario really captured the sense of the Hobbits having to trust this creature for direction, despite knowing that he probably wanted nothing more than to rob and murder them.
The Expanded Universe
[This is where the Spoilers start] Of course, whilst much of what we see in Lord of the Rings LCG is drawn from Tolkien’s Lore, the designers have also, particularly in recent cycles, put a lot of effort into creating their own characters, to develop new stories. This, of course, gives them more space to explore the idea of characters whose motives may be more complex than they appear.
Lord Alcaron was introduced to us off-stage in the Heirs of Numenor box, as a vaguely-described yet benevolent figure who had entrusted us with the delivery of an important scroll. Over the next few adventures, he appeared in person, and helped us rescue villagers from the burning settlement of Amon Dim, and defend against the ambush at the Crossroads.
For some people, there was always something about Alcaron that felt a bit off- his uncanny knack of turning up just as things were falling apart – it all seemed rather suspicious. Personally I had missed the hints we were given, but once we entered The Morgul Vale, all doubt was removed, as he was revealed- a Black Numenorian who had been plotting against us all along, and who was behind the kidnap of Faramir.
Alcaron’s enemy version was not particularly tied in to his objective-ally version mechanically: he was just one of the scenarios 3 “Captain” enemies, depicted on a new card for that set. Evidently, the whole narrative arc of the cycle would have been ruined if he had appeared in Heirs as a double-sided card. Still, it showed the willingness of the designers to push the envelope of what was possible in this game, and who we could trust.
Fast forward a couple of years to the present and, early in 2016, we got two new enemies – Captain Sahir and Na’asiyah. As prominent Corsairs, these FFG-created characters seemed like logical inclusions for ship-to-ship fighting, but they had the interesting additional feature of being double-sided, capable of becoming allies at a later point in time. We didn’t know what this meant for the future, but we had to assume the cards had been printed like that for a reason.
Intrigued but uninformed, we continued into the Dreamchaser cycle, still hunting pirates, all the way up until Thing in the Depths, at which point the sudden assault from a giant sea monster made us all re-think our priorities, and Sahir and Na’asiyah became our allies as we fought for mutual survival.
The shaky alliance held, and we made our first forays onto the lost island still accompanied by these enemies of our enemy. Like the mercenaries Corsairs and Pirates are generally assumed to be, you needed to spend resources to really get the best out of them, but they could definitely prove valuable in a fight.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about what happens at the end of The Drowned Ruins, but as Assault on Coba’s Haven lands in the next week or so, one thing will become clear as we see Na-asiyah, our first Corsair Hero!
Na-asiyah’s Hero ability mirrors the text on both her Enemy and Objective Ally cards, with resources being turned into attack and defence. It is clear that she is still not trusted by everyone, as her resources cannot be used to pay for allies, but for now at least, she is fighting alongside us.
I haven’t had a chance to do any deck-building with her yet (I’ll wait until I have the card in hand), but it feels like there is some serious potential here, perhaps in combination with Elrond (who can pay for allies of any sphere to help smooth the resource curve), with Hama (who can recycle events she can pay for), or simply as a self-buffing defender each round. Either way, a nice new direction to take hero cards in.
We already know from the various spoiler articles we have seen, that the next cycle will see our heroes finding themselves in Far Harad, and that there will be at least one Haradrim ally. It looks like the designers will continue to explore the question of who t is truly “evil” and who can be redeemed. I look forward to seeing where it takes us.