Kate Welch Reflects on Lord of the Rings, Games, and Play

Kate Welch, when introducing her Lord of the Rings-inspired game to an audience, says that she hopes she doesn’t disappoint any book purists–she’s going to be inventing some new canon tonight. Welch’s game—sponsored by Lost Odyssey and benefiting the charity Extra Life—takes place after the War of the Rings, and she takes some liberties, but this is a game about adventurers striving for home. It’s still very much Tolkien, even if some of the spells described during play aren’t anywhere in the books.

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io9 got on the phone with Welch to talk about Lord of the Rings, performance as gaming, and why gaming and play are so important. We started out by diving into the game itself. Lost Odyssey: The Red Scribe is a two-hour actual play using The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying 5e from Free League. Welch led a group of celebrity adventurers that included Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood, Daredevil), Reggie Watts (The Late Late Show with James Corden), TJ Storm (Godzilla, Deadpool), Luke Gygax (GaryCon, GaxxWorx), and Sala Baker (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy). The game was a charity event to support Extra Life, a program of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

While the basic gaming structures of Lost Odyssey: The Red Scribe are based in Dungeons & Dragons, there are changes to the rules that allow Free League’s The Lord of the Rings 5e book to better suit a game based on the novels. (Free League has also published Lord of the Rings: The One Ring, a totally D&D-free game for roleplaying in Middle-earth.) Dungeons & Dragons is a system that is notorious for its mechanical focus on combat and relational movement, but not so much on mechanizing emotion or incentivizing friendship. “There is a robust system for fellowship and travel,” Welch explains. “So much of Lord of the Rings is about the friendships you make on the way.”

In addition to journeying mechanics, the game also has a “shadow system,” much like a second health mechanic that tracks how corrupted your soul has been. Welch explains that this allows characters “to experience events that cause shadow scars. And the more shadow scars you accumulate there, the more your character turns to darkness, toward the forces of evil.” She laughs a little. “I only had two hours,” she laments, saying that she didn’t get as much of an opportunity to dive into these specialized mechanics as much as she wanted to.

Welch recalls when she DM’ed for “D&D in a Castle”—a luxury D&D getaway experience that is a little bit like LARPing with well-known and expert DMs—she took the mechanics from another game for her sessions. “It was a dungeon crawl, but in an illithid’s—a mind flayer’s—dungeon. I totally took rules from [Free League’s] Alien RPG to mechanize stress levels. I just love creating this world of emotion for the players. I could have done Dread too,” she adds, “and had players pull blocks from a Jenga tower to get that same vibe.”

There is an earnestness to the way that Welch talks about games that is deeply relatable and inspiring. We spend a lot of time talking about D&D, but she isn’t a player who is totally dedicated to just one game. “One of the main messages I want to bring to the world is [all games] don’t have to be D&D. This magic can be created. It can be any tabletop RPG, any setting that appeals to you.” She talks about how games are collaborative and encouraging, allowing adults to take control of their creativity when very often they have been told there is not room for that in their lives. Welch says that any game that allows you to “sit around, collaboratively imagining things together and improvising, embellishing other people’s creativity on the fly, whatever game creates those pathways in your brain that helps you make something together can be so fulfilling. Just being able to support smaller RPGS and see what else is out there in the indie RPG world. It’s major. It’s huge.” We both agree: it’s about the games you play, not how you play them.

Dungeons & Dragons borrows heavily from Lord of the Rings in its initial structure (“I think there have been some lawsuits about it, actually,” Welch says, laughing), so moving from D&D lore into Lord of the Rings was a natural fit—especially for Welch, who is a massive fan of Tolkien’s series and especially the Peter Jackson films. Swords, figurines, and art adorn her walls, and her large chestpiece tattoo is an homage to a headcanon of hers, where she imagines Eowyn dies in battle, wearing Theoden’s helmet, and the flower of Rohan’s kings, simbelmynë, eventually grows over her body. It’s a wicked cool tattoo, and I was nerdy enough to be able to recognize Theoden’s helmet because, much like Welch, I am also a bit of a Lord of the Rings fan.

Welch describes how much the movies in particular meant to her as a young girl, and how much the story—the way it alternates between a grounded travelogue and epic battles—“literally changed” her life. She was a lead designer at Wizards of the Coast before moving on to be a narrative designer, first at Dreamhaven and then at Probably Monsters. Her whole life for the past decade has been about magic, fantasy, and immersive game design. A lot of it she credits to the hold that Lord of the Rings has had on her imagination.

When it comes to playing the Lord of the Rings game, however, there’s more to it than just throwing a bunch of player characters in the Shire and telling them to head east. Balancing player agency, audience expectations, and a pretty strict time limit is no joke, especially when it comes to running Dungeons & Dragons as a two-hour one-shot, where single sessions can routinely pass four hours for just a small segment of the campaign. “The trickiest bit is the audience,” says Welch. “They’ll pick up on the threads you drop, even if your players don’t.” Just like real life, there are too many threads to weave into a game in a way that represents total closure.

She describes the balance between creating solemnity at the table versus wrangling a bunch of actors who are ready to be goofy. “Dungeons & Dragons can be, and usually is, very silly; it’s one of the things I love about it. Lord of the Rings,” she says, “is a little more serious.” There is an abbreviated adventure that comes from performing one shots that becomes almost a formula for Welch. You introduce the characters, you set them on a quest, you present a combat situation, you describe the aftermath. She talks about how sometimes, though, she realizes that she needs to fill 10 minutes: “Okay, time to get them interested in a random encounter!” Welch laughs. “But often it’s that unscripted stuff that I enjoy the most.”

Welch is more than grateful for all the opportunities she’s had to perform professionally as well as game as a professional, but one thing she mentions is that she has never gotten to lead a campaign. She does one-shots, short arcs, but she hasn’t had the chance to really dig into a game. “The idea of letting a story end when I’m tired and picking it up next time? That sounds so nice.”

Gaming as performance is nothing new, but playing tabletop games for a wider audience, not just for the benefit of friends at the table, is still a relatively nascent art form. Performers like Welch are still figuring it out, and many are working on balancing gaming and performing, and attempting to find the middle ground between the two. “There’s that pressure when you have an audience,” Welch explains. “I love performing, don’t get me wrong, I love having an audience, I love being the center of attention. But I’ve played a few games offline that I never record or stream, and the pressure of not having to perform and think of the next witty thing to say, or amp up the drama, or even allowing yourself time to flip through the rulebook is freeing. Because there’s so many things that you don’t have to worry about, like losing people’s attention or or fucking something up, because you don’t have an audience there. And that’s pretty nice.”

“It’s so endlessly cool to sit on a stage and play pretend,” Welch says, “And somehow that raises money for a good cause like that.” She loves D&D and she loves Lord of the Rings, and she’s hopeful that through performance and play, she can encourage others to play games. “Whether it’s a game about dragons, or neon-noir detectives, or himbos, there’s so much creative stuff out there, and it doesn’t matter what it is, but I think it’s so incredibly important and healthy for human beings to give themselves permission to pretend as adults.”

There is a safety in gaming—you are able to pretend to be someone else, to identify aspects of yourself in a container that you can try on and take off—and often adults, Welch says, are not encouraged to experiment with who they are. Growing up with role playing games, Welch “had all these characters who sort of were different branches of what I could be as an adult.” She describes asking herself, “Who are these characters? Who am I most drawn to? What do I like about this? And then folding them into my real personality. And that’s how I became who I am and how I still continue to become who I am, based on these experiments through play and pretend.”

Games are an incredible language through which people express themselves and come to deeper understandings, not only about themselves, but about relationships, the world, and other people. Welch loves games. By the end of our conversation, after off-handedly mentioning some games I was playing or interested in, she had already bought them. (They were Crescendo of Violence and Himbos of Myth and Mettle, for the record.) Her passion for gaming comes through in our conversation, and she wants to bring people into her table, and find ways to create connections. “I think play is so important,” Welch says at the end of our conversation, before immediately inviting me to be a part of a role-playing server. I might already have a character in mind.

You can watch Kate Welch DM Lost Odyssey: The Red Scribe presented by Lord of the Rings: Rise to War now.

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