Interview with Steven S. Long

The following is an interview with Steven Long (of Decipher) about the then-new Lord of the Rings RPG. It was originally posted on around August 2001, but it is no longer available there.

Hi, can you tell our readers who you are, what you do, and what type of background do you have?

Steve: I'm Steven S. Long, and I'm a professional game designer and writer. I've been working as a roleplaying game designer since the early 1990s, and been doing it full-time since 1997. I have written or co- authored over 70 roleplaying game core rulebooks, supplements, and related products. In the past I have worked for such companies as Hero Games, Pinnacle Entertainment Group, Last Unicorn Games, Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf Game Studios, and more.

In regard to the LOTR RPG, I've been a Tolkien fan for well over 20 years. My interest in Tolkien's works extends to such things as teaching myself his Elvish languages and writing. So you might say that getting to work on this game is like a dream come true for me.

How would you describe the RPG to the average gamer, and what are some of your goals for the project?

Steve: I think that the average gamer - one who has played Dungeons & Dragons, but probably not many other games - will find this game as easy to understand and use, if not easier, than other rules systems he's used to. As its basic mechanic it uses a familiar roll + skill + stat modifier system, similar to ones in many other games, but with our own little twists and improvements. The average gamer should be able to create a character and start playing in just a few minutes.

My goals, and Decipher's goals in general, for the project are twofold. First, we want to create a system that's easy for gamers to learn and use, but sufficiently detailed to handle the many situations that can arise in a roleplaying game adventure. Second, I want the rules and rulebook, and thus the game as a whole, to exude that distinctive "Tolkien feel" that the fans know and love. I don't want it to seem like just another fantasy roleplaying game, one that you could carry over to another setting and use with no alterations. I want people who read and use it to find that it not only inspires them to create characters and games suitable to the Middle-earth setting, but that through its rules and conventions it actively encourages that style of play.

Is the LoTR RPG based off the RoleMaster Rule System, or is it brand new?

Steve: It's brand new -- it's a system the RPG Studio has developed for both of Decipher's RPG lines (Star Trek and LOTR), but with specific changes and additions to make it as appropriate for the LOTR setting/property as possible.

We don't want to use the RoleMaster system for two reasons. First, while it is a good system, it is complex compared to most of today's RPGs. Since we hope to market this game to many non-gamer Tolkien fans, and thus draw them into gaming, we need a system they can quickly read through and understand, and I don't think RoleMaster satisfies that need. Second, even if we wanted to use it, we do not have the rights to do so.

Will the game expect people to have read Lord of the Rings, and the rest of the works?

Steve: Well, we certainly think that most people who buy the game will have read Tolkien's novels and/or seen the movies, but it's not specifically necessary to play the game. The game includes chapters on the history, lands, creatures, and personalities of Middle-earth, and thus acts as a sort of "introductory primer" to the setting for people not already familiar with it.

Can you describe how combat will play? (Including magic, melee, ranged, etc.)

Steve: Well, keeping in mind that we are in the middle of writing the core rulebook, and that many things may change, I can review the subject briefly.

To attack someone, you make a Test (a skill roll) with the appropriate Skill (Armed Combat or Ranged Combat), modified by the relevant Attribute (usually Nimbleness) and the circumstances (cover, terrain, your Wound and Weariness levels, and so forth). The Target Number (TN) to hit in melee combat depends on the Swiftness modifier of the target; in ranged combat, it depends primarily on the distance between the shooter and the target. If you equal or exceed the TN, you hit; the more you beat the TN by, the more damage you inflict. Each weapon's effectiveness is rated in a number of dice of damage, which you roll. From that total the target subtracts the rating of his armour. The rest then applies to his Wound Levels. Each character has six Wound Levels, with a certain number of points in each. After you take all the points in one Wound Level as damage, you drop to the next Wound Level, and suffer whatever penalties apply. When you reach the last level, you are dead.

Unfortunately I can't comment at any length on magic, either in general or as a part of combat, at this point. Because magic is such a complex and delicate subject, I have not yet written that section of the book. (I want to wait until I have all the other major rules in draft form first.) What I can tell you is that, conceptually, the magic will be different from that found in most fantasy roleplaying games. There is more magic in LOTR and Middle-earth than most people suspect - I have a five page-long list of spells and spell-like effects used in Tolkien's works - but it is still much more subtle and "flavorful" than most RPG magic. Magicians and wizards are not going to be tossing fireballs around, flying through the air, teleporting, or anything like that. That sort of thing simply isn't appropriate for LOTR; it violates the conventions of the setting and the "feel" of Tolkien's works. But magicians will have access to plenty of spells, abilities, and powers that make them as much a force to be reckoned with as any other character. But using too much magic, particularly in a short period of time, will probably cause them to lose Weariness levels, so they have to marshal their powers carefully.

Is the RPG being based off the books, movies, both? Also what age will the RPG take place?

Steve: The great thing about Decipher's license for this property is that it entitles us to use both the novels and the movie, so the book can be based off of both. However, unlike the TCG, which is based entirely on the movie, the RPG is based almost entirely on the books. For example, if a quote in the movie differs from the one in the books, you'll find the movie quote on one of the cards, but the novel quote in the RPG.

Since this is a roleplaying game, you can set your campaign in whatever age or part of the setting you prefer. As our "default" time period, we currently plan to use the years between the finding of the Ring and Sauron's return to Mordor (Third Age 2941-42) and the War of the Ring (Third Age 3018). During this time, the Shadow begins to arise, and evil things start stirring throughout Middle-earth - so heroes will have plenty to do as they help the Free Peoples prepare for the dark times to come. However, we also have discussions of setting your game during the War of the Ring, the early Fourth Age, and many other times.

How true to the books will it be?

Steve:As true to the books as I can possibly make it. I have been researching extensively and preparing both myself and the other writers working on the core rulebook for the project. In the past six months, I have re-read all of Tolkien's works twice, taken extensive notes, and written a lengthy and detailed outline for the book. The core rulebook itself will be about 150,000 words long, and my notes and outline are over 40,000 words long - nearly one-third the length of the book itself! So, as you can imagine, we are doing our best to remain faithful to the novels, and to pull out of them every scrap of information that might help people understand the setting or play the game.

If you read Tolkien's works closely, you will often find that there's more there than you thought at first. The list of spells and magic powers I mentioned before is one example. Armour is another; while it's true that there aren't as many different types as you'd find in Dungeons & Dragons, there are several types, with appropriate variations, listed in the rules.

Of course, since games often have to take a more extensive look at a setting than a novelist does, there are places where we have to extrapolate from what Tolkien has told us to create "new" things. When we do this, we always proceed with great caution, constantly asking ourselves, "Does this seem right? Does it have the LOTR "feel"? Does it fit into the setting properly?" For example, while the characters in LOTR generally didn't have to worry about money or what goods cost, in a roleplaying game characters often need to know that sort of thing. So, even though Tolkien doesn't explicitly discuss the economics of Middle- earth, we can take what snippets he does provide - names and types of coins, the price of ponies in Bree - and use that to provide gamers with the information they need, while remaining true, I think, to Tolkien's works.

Decipher is releasing a TCG based off the LoTR franchise, also GamesWorkshop is releasing a Table Top game. Will these other games be compatible with the RPG?

Steve: No, they won't specifically be "compatible" with the RPG, in the sense that you can effortlessly incorporate those other game products into your roleplaying sessions. The miniatures game is, of course, being produced by another manufacturer altogether, and the card game by a different division of the company with somewhat different design goals.

However, I think a gamer could easily use the products together if he wants to. You can take miniatures from GW's minis game and use them in your RPG sessions - we did just that for our demo games at GenCon, for example. The cards in the TCG are great for providing visuals to players ("You see this").

When is the game due out?

Steve: It's currently on schedule for a Feburary 2002 release.

How close to completion is the game, how long has production been going on?

Steve: Because most of the RPG Studio has been busy with our new Star Trek RPG games, production has only been going on for about the past two months, off and on, and the only person working on it so far has been me. (However, two of our designers, Matt Colville and Ken Hite, have been working on our LOTR Adventure Game, a boxed game containing a highly simplified version of the RPG, to be released in November.) So far I have written about 40% of the core rulebook, including most of the character creation rules. Soon we'll be ramping up to full-scale production, bringing in the other writers and getting everything completed quickly so that Christian Moore and I can begin the development process.

Will all the art for the game be based off the movies? Or will there be original art?

Steve: For the roleplaying game, I believe it will be almost all, if not all, original art. But that's not my department, so I am not sure.

Will just the core rulebook be needed? Or will you release a GameMaster Guide, and Creature Companion?

Steve: You can play the game with just the one core rulebook. It has everything you need, including gamemastering advice and tips, magic rules, character creation, and monsters. However, we do plan a healthy supplement schedule, with books focusing on various races, regions, and subjects (including creatures and monsters).

The RPG market is flourishing with the D20 system; how will you make LoTR something people have to pick up and play?

Steve: First and foremost, I think the attraction of the license will draw people to the game. Most gamers are Tolkien fans, so the product has a double draw for them, and even non-gamer fans will want the book because it's so full of useful information and so beautifully illustrated and put together. Once they pick it up, read through it, and try it out, I believe readers will want to keep playing because of the quality of our rules and products. They will realize how well our work helps them simulate the Tolkien/epic fantasy "feel" - something I think no other fantasy RPG currently on the market does - and be drawn to it for that reason.

One thing that made my fears go down when I heard that Decipher was awarded the license to the product is that Decipher has always maintained the integrity of the work. Can you explain to some of our readers who are not as familiar with the company what steps you are taking to do this?

Steve: There are two factors at work here. The first, and most important, is that I and the other designers working on this project are big Tolkien fans who want to preserve the integrity and flavor of his works in a gaming context. I want to make sure every accent mark is in place, every character has all the abilities attributed to him in the setting, and that the rules provide you with sufficient creative scope to design your own characters that fit seamlessly into Middle-earth. When you play this game, I want you to think you've stepped right into Tolkien's world and have become a part of it. That's what all the research and preparation I mentioned above are for.

Second, and from a more practical standpoint, as licensees, everything we do has to be approved by the licensor. If we do something that isn't appropriate for LOTR, the licensor won't approve it and we'll have to start all over. So, it's in our best interest to remain true to the source material.

Anything else you would like to add?

Steve: Just that I hope everyone who buys the book enjoys playing the game as much as I'm enjoying designing it.

I would like to extent an invite to you and your team to stop by and chat with us on our Adventure Gaming Message Board.

Steve: Thanks! I'll try to come by sometime and see what's going on.


Last modified: Mon Aug 27 16:37:52 2001