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Magic in Middle-earth

Written by Berislav Lopac, translated into English by Goran Brkic


Magic on Middle-earth has a couple of important features which can more or less be derived from the Tolkien's works.

One of the most prominent facts is that, regardless of its power, no creature can fly without wings. There are infinite examples to justify that -- starting with the fact that Gandalf needed Gwaihir's help to escape from the Orthanc tower, or descend from the mountain after the fight with the Balrog, and, finally, the fact that even the Valar, the most powerful beings on Arda, had used an island as a giant ship to transport them from Middle-earth to Aman.

This also implies that, besides flying, most other instantaneous or easy transport via magic -- like teleport -- is heavily restricted on Middle-earth. However, it is not against the spirit of the Tolkien's ideas to assume that rare magical artifacts, such as immobile gates and portals, can provide a similar effect.

Furthermore, although Gandalf threatens Samwise to turn him into a frog, shapeshifting is usually rare, although it exists -- the most prominent example is Beorn. Even the Valar and the Maiar, the most powerful of all, have difficulties in changing their physical shape once they become used to it, which can be explained as their habit (just as a person can get used to a particular suit).

Magic is to most people -- at least during the Third Age -- a mysterious and fabulous power, whereas the ones who wield it are often considered dangerous and evil. There are no "wizard guilds", or communication systems based on magic (except for the Palantíri, of course; however, are of a much more ancient origin -- see below), and there is no organized schools or "courses" of magic. The Elves are the only people who consider magic as something natural and ordinary, even to the extent of magic being an inherent part of their culture. Thus, the Elves do not perceive magic as something extreme or "unnatural".

The classic spells, used by individuals, are relatively rare and most of the magic encountered in the Third Age is based on enchanted items such as Orcrist and Glamdring, the Elven cloaks from Lórien, and the One Ring itself. Although Gandalf had shown he could use magic to perform displays of fireworks (in Hobbiton), build a fire (under Caradhras) or fight using firebolts (on Amon Sûl, against the Nazgûl), most of the magic is not physical, but more likely focused on the areas of mind, spirit and emotion. The Palantíri, the One Ring, the Nazgûl, the Seat of Seeing on Amon Hen etc.; they all show a strong influence over feelings, willpower or perception of individuals.

Wielders of Magic

The Powers

The most powerful beings inhabiting Arda are the Valar and the Maiar -- the original Ainur who have created the world directed by Ilúvatar. They have governed the world ever since, and fight against the Shadow. Unlike the traditional mythological deities, they are real beings, which, however, today inhabit dimensions unreachable by physical means. They do not interfere directly in the business of Arda's inhabitants, although a long time ago, one could even meet them and talk to them (however, the privilege was reserved for carefully selected individuals, such as Tuor or Eärendil).

The Valar, the most powerful rulers of the world, decided to retreat from Arda, transporting Aman -- the continent they lived on -- to a special, ensorcelled dimension, where only the ones allowed to enter have access to. The majority of the Maiar have staid there with them, although many of them continued to visit Middle-earth -- especially their "offspring", who were born during the First and the Second Age (or perhaps even during the time of Creation before the appearance of the Two Trees), and who became fond of Middle-earth as their homeland, often bonding themselves to a certain material object of nature: a tree, a rock, a lake, a mountain etc. The examples are those of the spirits of Melian, Caradhras, the Silent Watchers guarding the entrance to Minas Morgul, Tom Bombadil and Goldberry etc. Nevertheless, they, too, mostly hide from mortals, using spells like Sanctuary or Plane Shift to escape in case someone spots them.

The only Maiar to openly arrive to Middle-earth during the Third Age were the Istari, five wizards, most notable being Gandalf and Saruman. By arriving to Middle-earth their souls have closely bonded with their physical forms, even to the extent of Saruman's physical form (together with its needs: greed, the wish for more and more power etc.) prevailing over his soul in the end.

Some of the Maiar fell under the influence of Morgoth before arriving to Arda, and many of them stayed active long after their master's fall: except for Sauron, the most famous of them would be the Balrog, and there is a lot of lesser, weaker demons hiding themselves under the earth and in other planes of existence, wherefrom they can be summoned by the evil or the careless wielders of magic.

Characters: Although the Valar and the Maiar are best shown only in exceptional situations, and then only as "divine" or "angelic" being radiating power, sometimes the GM/DM/whatever will be required to present some of them as NPCs (PCs, of course, being out of the question) -- e.g. a lake nymph or a mountain spirit. As the particular powers of each one of them are very different from one another and as they cover a very wide scale, every Maia should be created individually, without starting characteristics and point limitation. Their magical powers should be treated as individual spells, but taken as inborn magic (see p. M86), and together with their normal advantages and disadvantages they should be allowed to take the ones for the Races and the Supers, too, as described in GURPS Compendium 1.

The Elves

As Eru's "first-born", the Elves are the closest to magic of all the free peoples of Middle-Earth. Since the first time their leaders were brought to Valinor, they have been studying magical powers from the Valar and the Maiar, mostly those concerned with artifact creation (the Noldor) or the coexistence with nature (the Sindar).

But even without those skills (represented by the standard GURPS magic), all of their skills and crafts (practiced by other peoples as well) include secret arts that add special abilities to the things produced. Those secret arts are completely natural and comprehensible to the Elves, and called "magic" by other peoples. The art is simply called Elfcraft, and is represented with the advantage of the same name; rules-wise, this is the same as the Hedge Magic advantage designed by S. John Ross.

As Magery is not a prerequisite for that advantage (although its value is added to the skill), non-Elves can learn Elfcraft as well. However, unlike the Elves, who include the cost of that advantage in the racial cost, they must pay Unusual Background of 10 pts. for each specialized skill; all the skills are covered if at least 40 pts. are spent.

Except for Elfcraft, the Elves can learn standard magic, which many do (taken that all Elves have inborn Magery of at least 1).

The Dwarves

Created by Aulë, the Dwarves are not the true children of Eru, although they are also considered one of the Free Peoples. Therefore, their connection with magic is the weakest, and they weren't even aware of magic's existence until they met the Elves who gave them runes. Together with runes, they also learned the skill of using runes to hone the products of their crafts, and ever since then this has been the only form of magic known to the Dwarves.

The Dwarven Runecasters are very rare and revered in Dwarven society. They choose their apprentices and successors among younger Dwarves in a very scrutinizing manner, so even the ones with Magery may not be chosen for that esteemed position (Ferin Longpole being the perfect example). Usually the individuals are specialized in one or two crafts, and only a couple of runes, therefore there is a very rare case of meeting a Dwarf capable of making any kind of magical artifact.

Númenoreans and Other Men

Men, as the second-born of Ilúvatar, are somewhere between the Elves and the Dwarves when it comes to their relation with magic. Just like Elves, Men can learn all the forms of magic use, however, they do not have any inborn magical abilities.

In the early days of ancient Númenor, under the patronage of Elves who visited the island frequently, Men have built their new realm with an abundant supply of magical help. Judging by the quantity of spells being learnt and used, and the magical items that survived the Fall, or perished and transformed to legends, Númenor was probably a high-mana area. Unfortunately, many mages fell under the influence of Sauron when Ar-Pharazôn brought him to the island, so they perished with Númenor, together with their knowledge and skills. Some items were left behind, and came to Middle-earth with the Dúnedain or the Black Númenoreans. The ancient Númenoreans have also created cities and buildings, such as the fortress of Ostiras (later Hornburg) or the haven of Umbar. The ones who survived the Fall by seeking shelter on Middle-earth have discovered that their powers were much weaker here, and that they wear out a lot more frequently. Together with the weakening of the Line of Númenor and the weakening of their magical talents, it has caused a gradual weakening and forgetting of their magical skills. Nevertheless, during the first years of their power, the Dúnedain have built glorious citadels like Isengard, Minas Tirith and the towers of Osgiliath, while the ones under the influence of the Shadow -- the Corsairs and the Black Númenoreans -- continued using the magical traditions that have always been considered evil.

Concerning the other cultures of Men, most of them have met some forms of magic in their past -- mostly from the Elves or the Númenoreans, and later from the five Wizards. During such experiences, most of the cultures have developed a negative, superstitious disposition towards magic, especially the ones under the influence of the Shadow, while the others learned some skills by themselves. Some of the Peoples, whose ancestors had met some of the Valar and learned a correct attitude towards nature in the ancient times, have developed a tradition -- although different from nation to nation -- called Animism.

Characters: In order to learn the usage of spells, a Man has to have the Unusual Background advantage (Animist Training or Trained by a Wise) beside Magery. The exact cost of that advantage depends on the culture the character is from (see below). If a character wishes to know Runecasting, then the Unusual Background is called Trained by a Runecaster, and costs the same as Trained by a Wise.

Orcs and Other Servants of the Shadow

As all the other creatures (except for the Elves), the Orcs have no inborn magical abilities. However, the rare among them deserving the trust of their masters (mostly Sauron, Saruman and the Nazgûl) were given access to some simpler spells.

Characters: Same as Men, except that the Orcs and the likes of them cannot be Animists.

Magic Traditions

Spells and Colleges

The primary form of using magic is through formalized magical "recipes" -- spells -- that are sorted by similarity into several "colleges". If a character wishes to use magic this way, he must have Unusual Background besides Magery. The cost of Unusual Background depends on what culture the character comes from, as well as who was the original mentor.

Race/Culture White Wise Grey Wise Black Wise
Eldar 15 20 n/a
Dúnedain 20 20 20
Black Númenoreans 30 25 20
Corsairs 25 25 20
All other races* 30 30 20

* Except for Hobbits, Dwarves, Umli, Stone Giants, Woses and Trolls (but including Half-Trolls, though).

White Wise: Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, Círdan, and probably a Maia actively devoted to fight against the Shadow (such as Tom Bombadil or Melian).

Grey Wise: The ones among the Wise who lost the common goal of fighting the Shadow and devoted themselves to their own interests, like Radagast, Alatar and Pallando, Saruman before his ultimate fall under the Shadow, as well as some wandering Maiar.

Black Wise: Sauron and the Nazgûl, as well as Saruman after his fall under the Shadow; briefly, all the Wise sharing a primary goal of supremacy of the Shadow and spreading of evil.

Players may freely choose the spells their characters know, however, the particular mentor's preferred colleges limit the choice. The GM has the last word, and the following guidelines may be used:

Certain cultures have traditions of the Animists: mages of more or less weak power, who use spells to help in the everyday life of their tribes. Each one of them should have Unusual Background: Animist Training -- the cost and the appropriate magical colleges depend on the culture the character comes from:

Culture Point Cost Magic Colleges
Beornings 20 Animal, Healing, Knowledge
Dunlendings 25 Healing, Knowledge
Haradrim: i-Berain 20 Healing, Knowledge, Movement
Haradrim: Moredain 20 Healing, Knowledge, Plant
Lossoth 20 Elemental: Water (Ice), Healing, Knowledge
Talathrim 20 Healing, Knowledge, Protection & Warning
Woses 15 Animal, Food, Healing, Knowledge,
Movement, Plant, Protection & Warning,
Sound, Weather

Improvised Magic

Every mage who knows a couple of spells may try and improvise a spell, according to the rules described on p. M76.

Rune Magic

Similar to improvised magic, casting spells through written runes is one of the most frequent ways of making magical items, especially among the Dwarves and the Elves (Men prefer Enchantment).

The rules on p. M76 should be used, but without the Parchment Rune Casting, Runestones and Finger Tracing rules; the runes work only if they are permanently written on the object. In fact, each rune is not a letter or a sign, but rather some special words in an appropriate language. Magical runes can be cast in four languages, and each language demands a special Rune-Lore skill. The languages are Khuzdul, Sindarin, Quenya and Adûnaic, and the character has to speak a particular language in order to cast magical runes in that language.

Definitions and Restrictions on Magic

Mana Level and Aspects

Middle-earth is generally a normal-mana world. Certain places (such as Lórien, Old Forest, Stone of Erech etc.) have a higher concentration of mana, and there are even more places with very high "aspects" of mana, mostly towards life (Rivendell, Lórien), death (entire Mordor, Dol Guldur) or the elements (Orodruin, Moria).

Magic Restrictions

The basic restriction is that magic is very rare, which is described by lots of circumstances which make it hard for a character to use magic.

The second restriction is that the energy required to cast a spell does not "decrease" depending on the skill level of that spell. However, a mage may decrease the needed energy by 1 pt. for every -5 modifier on the skill roll. The required energy can also decreased by 1 pt. if the casting time is doubled.


Although none of Tolkien's works mention familiars belonging to any of the Wizards or other Wise, Gandalf's Shadowfax is a perfect example of familiars being possible on Middle-earth. Familiars function as described on p. M105, and the following features and limits can be chosen:

Spell Use

Each time magic is used (whether by a mage or a magical item; "always on" items do not count), there is a chance of it being noticed by the servants of Sauron: roll an "open-ended" (which means that if the result -- with the modifiers -- is 95 or more, roll 1d100 again and add to the previous roll etc.; if the result is 5 or less, 1d100 is subtracted etc. 1d100+Period Modifier+Power Used. If the result is 100 or more, roll "open ended" 1d100 again and refer to the MERP table.

The roll is made after the spell's effects cease, or once each hour for spells of longer duration (the power used is estimated for the previous hour).

Period Modifiers
Third Age 0 - 1050 -15
Third Age 1050 - 2950 0
Third Age 2950 - 3018 +25
Fourth Age -25

Note: I have taken this effect as written from MERP second edition rulebook, since it nicely describes the effects of spellcasting, and i also don't mind mixing and matching various systems and dice rolls. However, it requires the table from ther MERP rulebook, and is also not quite in the spirit of GURPS rules. Unfortunately, I don't have time to dedicate and design a better system, and if someone is willing to do that I'll be glad to include the result here.

Overview of the Magic Colleges Available in Middle-earth

Animal; Body Control; Communication & Empathy; Elemental: Air (includes Electricity); Elemental: Earth; Elemental: Fire; Elemental: Water (includes Ice & Acid); Enchantment; Food; Gate; Healing; Illusion & Creation; Knowledge; Light & Darkness; Making & Breaking; Meta; Mind Control; Movement; Necromantic; Plant; Protection & Warning; Sound; Technological: Energy & Radiation; Technological: Machine; Technological: Metal & Plastic; Weather.