J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories began as gifts to his children, with the adventures of Bilbo told at bedtime. My husband, Alexi, and I have tried to follow in his footsteps, albeit in a different genre. We co-wrote a role-playing game, Back Again from the Broken Land, with the aim of helping a table of friends explore similar stories together. Back Again from the Broken Land tells the story of small adventurers walking home from a big war, and reckoning with the burdens they carry along the way.
Telling a Tolkienesque story requires more than assembling an adventuring party of men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits. When I worked on the game, I worried less about the languages and myths that Tolkien filled his own legendarium with, and more about how to make the mechanics of our world as grace-haunted as his.
The moves and rules of a game tell you what is at the heart of the stories it aims to tell. A game that lays out every detail of how a dagger’s capacities differ from a rapier’s is focused on combat (and may stall out if the characters try to talk to their enemies). I wanted the core mechanics of our game to focus not on strength and feats, but on how the characters grapple with their own weakness.
The players in Back Again from the Broken Land begin their story after the defeat of the Doomslord, and choose to play as one of several archetypes (the Volunteer, the Shepherd, the Wayfinder, etc.). All of the different character archetypes may have done things they’re ashamed of and want to atone for, but the Turncoat is the only one whose design is premised on their regret. Before the game’s story begins, the Turncoat was an instrument of the Doomslord, who only came back to the heroes’ side near the end of the war.
Gollum is the core inspiration—a person like Frodo, who was warped by his choices and struggles to overcome his disordered impulses. But there’s also some Pippin in the mix, who does real harm when he picks up the Palantir, even if he didn’t fully understand the danger.
At the beginning of the game, the Turncoat’s Burdens are unnamed, and it’s up the player to fill in the details of what he did. The adventurers are too small to take on major threats directly, so there’s no need to track health or harm. As they head home, they need to stay hidden and to reckon with their Burdens.
Every player starts with at least one Burden, but the Turncoat carries the most of everyone. The Burdens determine what kind of welcome the characters will find when they return home. For every Burden borne back still unnamed and unacknowledged, that character adds a Story of Isolation to the their epilogue. A Burden named, but not released means telling a Story of Amends. Make it home at all, and you get to include at least one Story of Growth.
The Turncoat’s story is woven into all the choices that the player makes when creating their character. To personalize each character, the playbooks come with different options to describe the character’s Gear they started the adventure with and the Gift they received along the way. While other archetypes make choices about their boots, their cloaks, or their weapons, the Turncoat’s Gear is a mark of dishonour. The player chooses between:
- A brand on your cheek
- A wound that won’t close in your shoulder
- A locket you can’t remove
Like Cain, the Turncoat finds that their presence proclaims the fact of their betrayal. Whatever they do to make amends happens in the shadow of the evil they’ve done. But Back Again from the Broken Land isn’t a story of despair. My aim was to take sin seriously, in order to be able to treat grace with gravity.
Thus, the Turncoat’s options for their Gift are meant to be a salve for the ache of their guilt. Their Gear is something they can’t escape, but I wanted the Gift they received on their journey to also have this haunting quality. The Turncoat chooses from these options:
- A cooling breeze you can’t leave behind
- A snatch of song you can’t forget
- A draught that you can’t drink dry
I wanted to write gifts that might feel unwelcome to someone who feels unworthy. I imagined a Turncoat who would throw away or abandon any material gift, just as we can choose to isolate ourselves and turn away help when we feel mired in our sins. Thus, each Gift is meant to suggest the Hound of Heaven.
Mercy can dog your steps as persistently as guilt. If the Turncoat’s Gear reproaches them with their misdeeds, the Gift is the other voice, telling them that there is something larger than their sin, and it hasn’t abandoned them. Each Gift is meant to be inexhaustible—they give the lie to the idea that our sins, as serious as they are, can put us beyond God’s power to save.
It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of sin and of grace at the same time. The temptation is to either minimize the sin until it’s manageable, or take it so seriously it eclipses the possibility of redemption. In our story about small people in a large and dangerous world, I wanted to make it clear that our heroes don’t depend solely on their own strength.
Tolkien himself once reassured a reader who was upset that Frodo had failed:
Frodo deserved all honour because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further…The Other Power then took over, the Writer of the Story (by which I don’t mean myself).
For the Turncoat, and for all the characters and players in our games, we want to offer a reminder of how small our cooperation with God’s grace can be. It may take every drop of our will and body to be willing to return to God and to accept a mercy we know we haven’t and cannot earn.
While the world tells us to stick to what we can achieve on our own, Back Again from the Broken Land is meant to be a restorative. In Tolkien’s spirit, it’s a space for telling fantasy stories that don’t lead us to escape the world, but to refresh our vision so we can see and love it truly.
Back Again from the Broken Land is available on Kickstarter through February 15th at noon.
[…] Zinequest 2021, I wrote a piece at Mere Orthodoxy about the design choices and theology behind Back Again from the Broken Land, a game I wrote together with my husband. The game is […]