Saturday, March 17, 2018

"With Great Power Comes Great Mental Illness..."

Apologies, apologies. Yes, I disappeared for a damn long time's been a pretty busy month and a half. So sorry.

[what happened to the Middle Earth "guide?" Um...let me get back to you on that]

I gave up drinking (alcohol) for Lent this year and it's been a fairly tough go. Not (just) because I'm a (functioning) alcoholic...going without doesn't give me the shakes or anything like that. It's just that I'm so used to having a drink or three just in the course of doing, watching a game, going out, streaming some show. Not to mention I've been mainlining NPR since the end of the football season and alcohol really helps take the edge off of whatever the Trump administration is doing these days...


Caught myself actually thinking about wanting a smoke the other day, and it's been nearly two decades since I last had a cigarette. Crazy. Instead I pounded a box of Girl Scout cookies ("thin" mints) over the course of three days (my daughter did help). Obviously, I'm a man who needs his vices.

So hear I sit, drinking yet another can of LaCroix (because it's cold and bubbly and, no, I don't know why I don't just drink water, dammit). But at least I'm blogging something, which is a start. Got to start somewhere. Even after you've started, sometimes it's necessary to start again.

And again. And again.

I'm going to talk about Shadowrun in a minute, but I just need to get a couple things out there first. I have been gaming a lot lately, but it's been almost exclusively Axis and Allies, which was a Christmas gift to my son, and which we've been playing non-stop for three or four weeks. We're using the 1941 rules, which are wonderful...the game is short and streamlined compared to other versions, and you can get through a game in about an evening and a half. We've played probably a dozen times, my son resetting the board after every defeat (no, he hasn't won yet, but he loves the thing and he's stubborn as hell...kind of like his old man).

We're even experimenting with our own rules. We wanted to add giant diesel-powered mecha to the board (inspired by the Japanime/manga Kishin Corps, as well as Pacific Rim), but haven't been able to decide on rules for the things. Instead our most recent game has introduced kaiju (giant monsters, a la Godzilla or...again...Pacific Rim), to act as a neutral, third party "spoiler." Jury's still out on their inclusion (we're in the middle of our first game using them), but we'll see if they'll swing the tide of the war one way or another...or if they simply devastate civilization while world's powers burn each other to the ground.

Something like this...
So, yes, I am doing "tabletop gaming" (of a sort), and A&A isn't the only one, though it's the only one worth mentioning. I was really, really looking hard at rewriting Heroes Unlimited to my own specs...and I may still do so...but when I open the book and start hacking through jungle I find it Just...So...Daunting. Hats off to Mr. Siembieda for actually putting together this thing...I mean, I couldn't (certainly wouldn't) put together these lists of gadgets for hardware characters and implants for bionic character and this system of magic, and All These Random Tables, and...and...

(*double sigh*) It's actually kind of hard deciding what exactly to keep.

But I did get a little inspired watching the new season of Jessica Jones this last week; at least, binging it added fuel to the smoldering blaze. I've decided I LOVE Jessica Jones (the show, not the character). Unlike prior Marvel Netflix shows, the new season of JJ is awesome right out of the gate, rather than waiting 2-3 episodes to find its feet. It does hit its peak about three episodes from the end season, resulting in a looooong denouement but...whatever. The show is filled with such bitterness and sadness and melancholy, you KNOW how it's all going to end, even if you're not sure the exact path the plot takes to get there. And you're already bought in, so...yeah. Tears and booze. And regrets and recriminations. Jessica Jones.

She really reminds me of a girl or two I used to know.

Even added the Whizzer!
With mongoose!
Anyhoo, the thing about JJ (and ALL the Marvel Netflix series) is how "small time" the superhero world is in the setting. And Heroes Unlimited may be...hmmm, I'm not exactly sure what I want to say.

...may be the only supers RPG that does small time(?)

...may be the "best" supers RPG at doing small time(?)

Probably something like "may be my personal favorite RPG for doing small time." And yet every revision, every supplement has seen increases in the power level of the game. Never mind Rifts and its (wholly compatible) madness. But if you dial that power creep way down, you can really start to see a good system for modeling the likes of Jessica Jones and her associates (not to mention antagonists). It's just that looking at the words "good system" makes me want to guffaw aloud as I consider Palladium's systems. So, so sorry.

SO...Shadowrun. I picked up a copy of the 4th edition the other day (I think it's the says "20th Anniversary Core Rulebook" on the cover). I did this for a couple reasons: first, it was dirt cheap ($9.99, used). Second, I wanted to see what was new and great  and "happening" with Shadowrun, thinking maybe it would galvanize me to take action with my long unpublished Cry Dark Future manuscript. However, I've yet to read page one of the tome (it's sitting in bed next to me as I type this) because...well, because I've been busy. And maybe because I'm lacking the heart (or stomach) to look betwixt its covers.

This one...pretty sure it's
the fourth edition.
HOWEVER (still with me folks? Okay, almost done)...however, even though I've been lugging this thing around in my backpack, NOT reading it, it's been on my mind a bit. And so, when I was in a local game shop Wednesday, making the acquaintance of the 23 year old store manager and found out her RPG experience was mainly with Shadowrun, I found myself not only talking about my own experience with the SR game, but about my own, unpublished, SR-knockoff. And I ended up giving her an old manuscript Thursday, and picking up her feedback Friday. AND, as was the case SIX YEARS AGO (jumping Jesus on a pogo stick!), the comments were universally positive. There is, apparently, still a market for Shadowrun (who'd have thunk it?), and one that has serious complaints about the RPG's current level of accessibility (low), and that might find real enjoyment in something a little more "lightweight" while keeping the same Shadow-isms.

In other words, publish the damn thing already.

Now for those of you who have followed this blog for...Christ, years!...for those who've been following the saga of this thing, you might recall that I basically started rewriting the whole damn book from scratch, making it much more of a post-apocalyptic fantasy game. Something like Appleseed (at least the cinematic version) with elves and dwarves. Ralph Bakshi's Wizards meets Thundarr meets Heavy Metal meets Ghost in the Shell. With pointy ears. And VERY different game systems (especially pertaining to character creation, advancement/development, and material resources). A complete frigging overhaul might be a good way to describe it. An overhaul that I have never completed.

Here's the thing I've just realized in the last couple days (as I dug up and reread both my original manuscript and the current, unfinished rewrite): the overhaul is a different game. It has the same name, and a few of the systems but the setting and theme are completely different. Hell, the name "Cry Dark Future" doesn't even fit. Dark future? Whose future? Tolkien's? It's post-apocalyptic fantasy, it's not "future" anything. Hell, even the guns are about the same as current (real world) technology...the only thing "futuristic" is the cybernetics, and those could just as easily be skinned as magical or steampunk or whatever.

What I really have on my hand are two different books. One finished and one not. Two games, not one. The finished one is even playable.

It is, though, in need of a lot of polishing. Rereading it really made me cringe in places. I kind of hate how I wrote it: my style, my wording. It does need an overhaul, but mainly in phrasing. It needs to be clearer, more succinct and useful in conveying its rules. And it needs to be more creative in how it models certain in-game systems.

So, yeah. Looks like I'm back to finishing Cry Dark Future. Just to put it to bed...finally.

Expect the blogging to be light and sporadic for the near future. Again: apologies.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The "Guide"

So I'm working on my Tolkien setting material for B/X and it's fairly loooooooong (as is usual for these types of things), and I'm wondering if folks have any preference as to how I present it. My original thought was to do something like one post per chapter...but many chapters could probably be multiple posts (and they'd still be long).

What do people prefer to read? I mean, I am going to post it in installments -- and the plan is to "string it out," rather than just spam a bunch of posts on the blog. Do you want bite-size chunks? Or 5000 word dollops of info? Keep in mind this will be coming in a "wall of text" format, not an actual layout like an actual supplement book would have.

Let me know.
; )

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

"And He's A GREAT Welder, Let Me Tell You..."

Does anyone here watch House of Cards? Remember that scene where Frank Underwood (Kevin Stacey) asks Freddy (played by Emmy Winner Reg Cathey) to make him some ribs, for old times sake, and Freddy tells the President to go F himself? Remember that? Anyone?

Here's a clip I found on ye old YouTube in case you want to watch.

The first time I watched that scene, I was extremely uncomfortable. And not simply because it's a powerful scene, in a series rife with powerful drama.

No, it was because I had a sudden identification with the scene. Not with Freddy, but with Frank...and not because I've been called a motherfucker with such venom before (though I have been told off before). No, it was because I, too, have been guilty of doing this: taking people for granted.

We all exhibit selfishness and self-centeredness at times; for many (most?) of us, we have a tendency to put ourselves FIRST in our thoughts and desires, save for when it comes to our closest family members (children, spouses, etc.). Even then, though, we're rarely 100% on board with putting others' needs and desires first (we'll throw on the TV for our kids so we can tool around on our computer, or sneak off to the garage for some "me time" or whatever). It's part of our nature as humans, part of having an ego and a perception of ourselves as separate from others, that it can be a struggle to be on-point with serving others ALL THE TIME.

And, sure would be nice if those of us in a position of power considered how best we could serve the people who look to us for leadership, rather than using them as pawns and tools. Throwaway, cardboard cutouts existing for our own amusement and aggrandizement rather than thinking, feeling human beings.

You know, once upon a time, I was a real jerk (some would tell me I still me, I'm better these days). About a lot of things. And I feel bad about some of my actions in the past, both word and deed. My intention is to try to be a better person moving forward, a less selfish person. My intention is to learn from mistakes...both my own, and those of that I can be a better class of human being.

That's still (probably) a little selfish of me: I don't like being made to feel uncomfortable.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Winding Down The Rant

SO...I went to bed last night considering my "B/X Guide to Middle Earth," and all of a sudden there's nigh on 30 comments on my "tipsy rant" from a couple days ago.

[just for the record, I've posted things in a much deeper alcoholic haze in the can tell when my spelling and grammar is a slobbery mess]

But rather than reply to all those comments (and boost the total up to 50+) allow me to just say a few words and move onto the next subject.

FIRST: thank you to ALL the people who commented, both detractors and supporters. It helps me to hear from both sides, and to reexamine my own thoughts. Also, I think it's helpful to my readers who bother reading the comments to see the additional thoughts folks might have on the stuff I write. Furthermore, I often can find comments to "riff off" for future posts, especially as YOUR insights and  opinions get my own juices flowing. So...THANK YOU.

[it's also just nice to know people are still reading Ye Old Blog]

SECOND (@ Shlominus): oh, I soooooo want to play with these youngsters. I am all but salivating to show kids "the ropes," though I realize they are only "my ropes." If I was single and childless, I would be offering to run games every evening. Back before Paraguay (and my kids) I was running games every Thursday down at my local bar, and I wasn't turning anyone away...and that was back before I was even thinking about "experiential D&D" and teaching techniques and stuff (things I'm thinking about now). I just wanted to show folks the joy of the game. And while many of the players who showed up were Oldsters like myself, there were at least a handful of new players who joined my table in those days...and showing them the game (and making an impression) was a definite "perk" of the experience. I still look back fondly on my time teaching my "nephews" how to play, and I eagerly look forward to the day I can teach my own kids.

Maybe tomorrow.

THIRD (@ Alexis and Angry Monk): there is definitely a fine line between being a "cynic" and a "realist;" I flirt with it often myself. I think Alexis has the right of it (as far the point of my post), but I understand why folks like Angry (and Jeremy Murphy) might take umbrage with my incendiary (or maudlin) rambling. Does it help to scream and shout into the internet void? Maybe? It helps me a bit to blow off steam. And maybe there are some folks feeling the same as me, and who get to feel a little solidarity.

Am I having a "negative impact?" Maybe: if folks feel hurt or offended because they think I'm "looking down on their gaming," if they feel I'm telling them they're "doing it wrong." Sure, I AM being judgmental...but that doesn't mean I want them to stop gaming. Just like I might criticize a particular game or design...I've never written (so far as I can remember) that some game designer should give it up, pack it in, quit their creation process. My criticism is meant to be critique...and if that doesn't come across effectively, it's mostly due to my being a poor writer, and the limitations of the medium I'm using.

Even my criticism of WotC: it's a call for change, not a demand that they close up shop. But I recognize that calling for change to corporate policy and business plans IS a bit of a fools errand, and so strong action (revolutionary action), might be necessary to elicit any meaningful change. And sometimes strong words can stir strong action.

And sometimes they don't. And sometimes (especially on a blog, which only reflects my opinion) strong words are simply about "blowing off steam." Because a person (me) gets especially irritated and complaining to my children about something they don't understand provides zero catharsis and would only confuse them. It's tricky enough explaining to my three year old why eating candy right before bed on a school night is a poor choice. I wrote in my original post...sorry for any offense my words gave,

LASTLY (@ Ozymandius): it's a habit of my generation that we tend to give advice unasked for and ask for advice when none is needed. I try to remember this and restrain myself in this regard (that's why, when I saw young folks playing 5E, I didn't throw down a copy of Labyrinth Lord on the table and say, "here, try THIS out instead!"). I've gotten pretty good in recent years about avoiding the temptation. But this blog is the repository for my personal thoughts, especially on gaming, and I assume folks coming here are somewhat interested in what I have to say on the matter. I agree with your sentiment that we have a responsibility to step in if we see someone about to "jump off a bridge;" but gaming is hardly the same thing as eating detergent.

I don't step on folks' games (those kids at the shop were still setting up and waiting for another player or two), but people who read my blog should certainly expect to get an eyeful of opinion. Because of my own policy with regard to comments (I allow them) I understand I might have to deal with pushback. I hope that I am mature enough (at my age) to glean something useful out of the dissenting opinions.

AND...that's about all I want to say. For now.
; )

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Just For Fun...

[because sometimes things get a might "heavy" around here]

A recent (American) polling group conducted a survey of which corporate brands were MOST DESPISED as divided among (American) political lines. Here's what they found to be the top answers:

For Democrats:  Trump Casinos (of course)
For Republicans:  A TIE between the NFL and CNN (disrespecting the flag and "fake news," I suppose)
For Independents: Diet Pepsi

While these days I consider myself a "staunch Democrat" (I have several issues with the neo-Socialists in my region), I must say that I've never been a fan of Pepsi, diet or otherwise. Coke, all the way.

[and I've been a non-cola drinker for the last 20 years]

Now teach the world to sing, dammit!

The Weekly Rant

Just picking up where I left off...

Damn, I drink too much. It's a fact (I booze more than I need to, certainly more than I should), but so far it hasn't destroyed my life yet as it has with so many of my family members. I'm a stubborn son-of-a-bitch, I suppose, and I have the gift of being able to observe myself with an objective perspective, "bucking up" as necessary to keep my life on track. IPA with "lunch," a strong stout at my favorite game shop, and now I'm close to finishing off a bottle of white that I opened while cooking the kids dinner (fresh trout, pan fried, with a side of steamed green beans, the latter tossed in olive oil and raspberries for dessert). The kids are in bed so I can "shnocker" myself as I blog.

But I realize it's not good.

I'm angry tonight, and it has nothing to do with my lot in life. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm blessed. My back even feels fine this week. Wife's out of town and kids are a little melancholy, but she'll be back in nine days...and then there's our plans to travel to Oaxaca over Spring break which, if memory serves, may have actually been MY idea (remarkable, because I'm the homebody who would rather stay in Seattle, waiting out the rainy winter). Sure I should be saving for my kids' college tuition, but why not enrich their life experience while Mexico is still affordable and we have some extra cash? My parents never paid a dime for my college tuition, and I still managed to muddle through Jesuit university and pay off the loans.

[that's one of the secrets of life,'s actually fairly long and those giant bills DO eventually get paid, even though it might take a decade or two]

No, I'm not angry about my life (at least, I don't think I am; if it's a subconscious thing then shame on me). No, I'm angry about Dungeons & Dragons. Probably for stupid reasons (if being "angry about Dungeons & Dragons" wasn't stupid enough).

The kids and I drove out to the game shop tonight...not exactly local (it's in Edmonds), but certainly my favorite. D had received a Pokemon set for Christmas that he'd been wanting to exchange, and I was looking for a copy of the One Ring RPG, or the Adventures in Middle Earth game setting for 5E, both of which had been suggested to me by a Mr. T in the comments of my last post. I found the latter (both the "player guide" and the "loremaster handbook") and was fairly unimpressed...though they're nice books, they're fairly limited in scope, all things considered (I've spent a lot of the last couple days re-reading The Silmarillion, which I find simultaneously inspiring and disheartening).

Still, I was able to pick up a copy of the 4th Edition of Shadowrun (used) for ten bucks...not bad considering its $40+ hardcover price tag...which might just be the kick in the head I need to get back to Cry Dark Future (every time I see a new iteration of the game...and I realize it's on version five...I see how useful my game would be). So...definitely not a waste of time (in my opinion), making the drive to Edmonds.


As we were leaving...

Found some kids setting up for a game of 5E D&D.

"Kids," I say, but I did ask the DM her age and she claimed 24, and they all looked to be in the same ballpark. Three or four young women (I was wrestling coats onto small children at the time so my headcount might not have been accurate), ready to explore and adventure (I presume) in some...

Okay. Enough with the flowery prose.

Last week I was down at a different shop, solo, talking with an acquaintance who happens to have an "insider's view" of the workings of the industry. Let's call him "Bill" for the sake of protecting the innocent (just in case). The thing about Seattle is there are a LOT of industry (RPG industry) folks residing out here by dint of WotC's vicinity. Lots of Big Industry Names live out in this neck o the woods, even those NOT associated with WotC...and there's plenty of dirt to dig up, if one's into that kind of thing. Anyway...

I was talking to "Bill" about some o these idea I've been having lately: like how RPGs' greatest strength may be in what they offer "experientially" and how maybe the old fable of "good GMs making for good games" isn't so terribly far-fetched and that perhaps the thing we should be doing (and the thing we're failing at the most) is in teaching folks how to BE good GMs, and how the biggest names in the industry seem far less concerned with teaching new folks how to run games and far more concerned with making them dependent on sucking the corporate tit for adventure ideas.

And Bill did nothing to dispel my fears. There has been a (small to medium) resurgence in the game; more people are playing now than had been for...well, recently anyway (like, since the 80s). But the industry's response to a growing NEW fan base has been to harness technology, making "apps" that teach folks how to use the game. Because my question for Bill was: what the hell is the plan here when it comes to teaching new folks how to run games? You know what I mean: how do the publishers intend to create competent Dungeon Masters (or whatever the term is used with regard to Pathfinder, etc.). And their basic plan is: not to do so. The opposite, in fact.

Back to the kids at the game shop. After (politely, I think) interrupting them, I asked if they'd be willing to answer a few questions I had. They were (perhaps a little flustered, surprised) amiable enough. I asked how they'd learned to play D&D; they gestured to one of their group and said it was due to "her boyfriend." I asked who was acting as their DM. This particular evening it would be the same girl indicated, though they explained their campaign had co-DMs, the boyfriend being the other. I asked the DM her age (24) and asked her if 5E was her first edition of D&D? No, she'd started with 3.5.

Then I asked the young woman how she'd learned to DM. Slightly embarrassed, she explained she'd listened to a podcast (the name escapes me...I'm on my final glass of wine) about a father's game for his children. She said the "story arc" he'd described was so inspiring that she "really wanted to become a DM" to tell similar stories. She stated that she'd never DM'd in her earlier 3.5 edition experiences, but that 5E was so "streamlined" compared to 3.5, that it was "a lot easier."

I thanked them for their time and information and left. I have never wanted so much to punch an edition of Dungeons & Dragons in the face.

I find myself wanting to run a game of 5E just to rip its balls off. Really. Just to maim that motherfucker, pull pieces off it and show some young folks how stupid and insipid it is. I realize this is very tonto...very silly of me. That I am being an old curmudgeon, pissing all over the fun of people enjoying themselves (and, just for the record, I said nothing negative or untoward to these 5E players, now did I wax on about the "glories" of older editions or retro-clones or anything...I simply asked questions and listened to answers). BUT...


Those girls, those young girls (adults, sure, but I'm not sure I felt fully "mature" till age 30)...they were, well, not quite embarrassed in demeanor, but certainly apologetic. Like they felt bad about their enjoyable pastime or the way in which they'd come to it. Not just the DM, but the players as well. Like the whole thing was contemptible.

Because we hold it in contempt.

In the United States of America the greatest, most popular, most beloved sport of our nation is American Football. More Americans watch the Super Bowl every year than any other television program (not just sporting event...any program). For the rest of the world, it might be the World Cup championship...but that's only every four years. The Super Bowl is dominant in my nation. and it's growing in prominence around the world.

But did you know that professional football in the United States was once held in contempt? That it was deemed sleazy and uncouth and a terrible "profession" for any right-minded, clean-living individual? That only the lowest of the low would stoop to playing for pay (or, presumably, paying to watch paid players)? In the early decades of the sport, only the college game was revered and worthy of being lauded...until such college players as "Red" Grange started deciding to go pro.

[this, just by the way, had nothing to do with being a paid athlete. Professional baseball players, wrestlers, and fighters...including fencers in Europe!...had been around for decades before individuals decided to "professionalize" American football, and those figures were held in esteem]

American football...yes, the NFL (for it had already acquired those initials by 1922) was held in contempt by the majority of Americans for decades, even by many of those whose home town fielded a professional team. Pro players worked side-jobs and lied about their gig, despite loving the game and giving their blood, sweat, and tears to it. Despite being broken upon the gridiron and carrying debilitating injuries into their later lives. They played for love of the game...and possibly because they were (or felt they were) unsuited to better forms of employment. I would imagine that some D&D players can draw an analogy there with regard to their creative expression.

[why don't I write a novel? or poetry? why do I draw dungeon labyrinths instead of seeking employment as an actual architect? etc.]

But while I can grok that role-playing may be held in contempt by the layperson who hasn't yet been exposed to the game, what I find myself increasingly unable to abide is the contempt in which the industry holds itself.

The NFL was grown and cultivated, developed and marketed, and within about 30 years had become, if not totally respectable, at least financially stable. By the end of the 1950s, it was well on its way to becoming the most popular sporting profession in the United States.

And where is role-playing after four and a half decades? Where is the careful cultivation of our industry's leaders? What is our projected destination for this thing we call (tabletop) gaming?

Thinking about those young players at the game shop stuffing money into the pockets of a company to play a game they find "easy and streamlined" (because their only exposure has been to 3E+), who learn how to run games through random internet podcasts (because they can't figure it out from the mammoth texts), who have a desire to play, but who haven't been given the understanding or information on how and why and what makes the game so damn good, instead being fed a diet of packaged "story lines" published by a faceless corporation who holds them in contempt (save for the buying power of their wallets)...

Well, it's enough to drive me back to the bottle.

This is not another shot fired in the "edition wars," by the way. It's not a rant against 5E or Pathfinder. This is a rant against the publishers: the Wizards of the Coast and Paizos and Hasbros of the world. The folks who control the largest marketing share of the industry and thus should be held accountable as industry leaders.  Perhaps they would tell me, "hey, we're just giving players what they want...they don't know how to play, and they are crying out for new, creative adventure paths and pre-made campaigns for exploration! And our fans are voting with their wallets, buying it, and so we will continue to give it to them."

To which I'd reply: you are giving them no other choice.

It makes me angry. It really, really does.

[side note: most of this rant was written last night while deep in my cups (in case you couldn't tell). I dozed off before I could finish writing it. Welp, this morning I'm awake, sober, and coffee'd up and my mood is still pretty fiery. Sorry to any I might have offended. I will be getting back to the Middle Earth thing pretty or tomorrow, I hope]

Just trying to capture my mood...

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A B/X Guide to Middle Earth (Part 1)

A lot of recent (virtual) ink has been spilled lately over the idea of adapting D&D to Tolkien's Middle Earth setting. I won't bother posting links...they're easy enough to find. Looking back through my own archived blog posts, I find a lot of this kind of thing, though I've never actually run such a campaign; much as I've enjoyed reading Tolkien's works (including the derivations from his son), I've always found Middle Earth's extensive history a bit too crowded for the insertion of new protagonists (i.e the player characters). However, it's possible I haven't given the idea enough of a fair shake.

After all, Tolkien's work has been the foundational muse for a huge swath of "high fantasy" works, everything from Stephen Donaldson to Robert Jordan to Terry Brooks to Weiss and Hickman's Dragonlance saga (substitute "Berem the Everman" for the One Ring and Takhisis for Sauron). While most of these are pretty terrible (sorry), there's little doubt they're popular, having sold millions and millions of copies over the years. Perhaps the theme and (common) story strikes a chord in people; perhaps folks just wish they could get MORE Tolkien and are willing to gobble up whatever is offered. In the end, the reason doesn't matter terribly...we know the formula works.

Even so, for a D&D campaign, few folk are interested in playing in the shadow of greatness: they want their adventures to be open, not tied to wars and battles and heroic deeds being done by NPCs. So, for those interested in exploring the beauty and wonder of Middle Earth without worrying about Aragorn and Frodo and the Dark Lord Sauron etc., the question arises: where to set the campaign? Or, more accurately, when?

For me, I'd go ahead and start such a campaign circa the year 1300 T.A. (Third Age).  The hobbits have begun moving west, though the Shire won't be settled for another 300 years...their race is still restless and adventurous, though they still display their love for simple farming life (when they can find it). There are still kings in Gondor, Rhovanion, and Arnor, though that last has been broken into three lesser kingdoms. There are still dwarves in Moria (and will be for 600 years) and Erebor ("Lonely Mountain") has yet to be founded.  Elves are found in the usual places but their power, like Gondor, is much in decline. The Istari (wizards) have entered Middle Earth, but have only been around for a couple centuries.

Using the Third Age as a setting precludes
any appearance by Morgoth. Be glad.
As far as "evil" goes, the Witch King has moved into Angmar, but has not yet become the powerful threat it will be in another century. Orcs are beginning to infest the Misty Mountains and Greenwood has already become Mirkwood. Sauron is in Dol Guldur (masquerading as "the Necromancer") but has little direct influence for a thousand years. Smeagol ("Gollum") will not discover the One Ring for another eleven centuries, so THAT's not a worry. The fall of Numenor occurred two thousand years prior, but pockets of "Black Numenoreans" remain, causing assorted mischief, and old outposts make good dungeon environments for exploring and looting. Mordor exists, of course, and despite the absence of Sauron and his Nazgul, it remains the most perilous environment in Middle Earth. And there are plenty of human antagonists to contend with, including corsairs and pirates, bandits and "Easterlings." Plenty of glory and gold to be won by adventurous types, and no worries to be had regarding final conflicts with fallen gods.

Not bad at all.

Of course, some adjustments need to be made to the B/X rules to really get a "Middle Earth" feel. There are no clerics in the style of D&D, though I.C.E.'s Middle-Earth Role Playing game includes an "animist" profession to fill this niche (it also includes a "scout" profession to fill the role normally occupied by D&D's thief class). There is, in fact, very little magical healing in the Middle Earth setting, certainly not much that is easily accessible (though food, drink, and soft beds seem to have much the same power as healing potions in the fiction).

Magic, in general, is different from that found in the D&D game, being actually more common (every race exhibits some form of "magic") while decidedly less powerful (only the IstariMaiar, and Valar display great shows of power on par with a D&D "wizard").  Magical items tend to be usable by all classes of characters (wizards wield magic swords, warriors use crystal balls, etc.) but most such enchantments can have grave consequences when wielded by those who lack the proper training, control, and/or bloodline. The setting itself is full of the supernatural, though it is far more of the dark fairy tale story (talking animals, ancient curses) and less of the Strange Tales variety prevalent in your average D&D campaign (understandable in that the latter draws upon Howard and Lovecraft as much as Tolkien...if not more so).

An interesting challenge to try to write up a campaign guide for such a setting. Interesting, but not exactly what I'd call daunting.

I think I might give it a go. It's been a while since I've designed anything, really (well, other than this thing or two I was helping my boy with...). Plus, I really have all the books on hand that one could want for such a task: multiple "visual guidebooks," the collected works of Tolkien (including the Silmarillion), Chris Tolkien's books, a copy of MERP, plus the LotR fan wiki. Yeah, maybe something with hobbits and balrogs would be just the kind of thing to get my mental juices flowing...

Let me see what I can put together.