Another thought-provoking thread over on the Cubicle 7 forums. What began as a question about the resting and recovery mechanics soon got sidetracked into a very interesting discussion on morality in Middle Earth. I'll discuss some of the points brought up, as well as make another comparison to D&D.
Goblins - Same Name, Different Creature
Tolkien's orcs and goblins are pretty much pure evil and beyond repent. There are countless examples of Elves, Men, and Dwarves killing them without remorse, offering no chance for surrender (not that any orcs ever attempted to do so). The most striking example of the fundamental differences between orcs and Men are after the battle of Helm's Deep, when all of the orcs were slaughtered but the Men that they were allied with were taken captive, put to work repairing the damage, and then told to go back to their own lands and never again take up arms against Rohan. Despite the fact that the Dunlendings and orcs were all fighting as part of the same army, Tolkien firmly establishes that orcs are servants of the shadow, pure evil, whereas Men, as members of the Free Peoples, can be corrupted but are nevertheless worthy of moral consideration.
In D&D goblins and orcs are indeed usually evil, but as with any sentient being with free will this isn't necessarily always the case. Published modules will sometimes have "good" (or more likely neutral) goblin or kobold NPCs (Splug, Meepo, etc.) that the party can ally with. And of course Drizzt, the most famous hero from the Forgotten Realms, is a rare good Drow. At this point in the game's history it's pretty much expected that sooner or later an adventuring party will either contain a good member of an "evil" race, or will encounter one. Though ignored by many (if not most) groups, fighting even the monstrous races potentially poses a moral dilemma, because such creatures do have a demonstrable capacity for good (even if it rarely manifests, and only among a minority of individuals). My players have grown accustomed to the occasional goblin or kobold NPC, and even those that are shady characters aren't usually slain on sight (though armed bands of them during a dungeon crawl are).
This dimension should be non-existent in a game of The One Ring, provided that you're attempting to stay consistent with the source material. Moral dilemmas would mostly be limited to "evil" Men, such as the Haradrim or Easterlings. There is certainly precedent for that; one of the main themes in Gollum's storyline is mercy for an outwardly wretched and cruel creature because he ultimately used to be a Stoor Hobbit. Despite what evil he's done, what you are matters in Middle Earth. Tolkien's orcs function more as plot device more than realistic sentient beings (unlike Gollum), and such servants of the Shadow are simply bodily manifestations of evil itself. Though readers follow individual orcs on a few occasions and thus may become slightly sympathetic toward them (Grishnakh and Ugluk in Rohan, and Shagrat and Gorbag at Cirith Ungol), nothing redemptive can really be seen in them, and they only keep their respective Hobbit prisoners alive (sometimes fiercely defending them from other orcs) because of their orders. The best quality they may seem to possess is loyalty, and that's likely out of fear of their masters (for they seem to kill each other fairly readily).
Evil can be killed in both settings with little remorse, but the nature of evil will differ quite a bit. In D&D (at least by default) any race is capable of evil, though some are much more likely to hold that alignment). In Middle Earth pure evil exists, but it's embodied by Morgoth (and later Sauron) and their servants, which are irredeemably evil, and it's usually their corrupting influence that causes members of the Free Peoples to commit evil deeds.
Shadow and Character Development
The above discussion ties in very closely with the concept of Shadow points. On the thread that inspired this post, Azrapse stated: "Certainly, for me Shadow points are not a punishment, but another way in
which the character evolves. They make them look adventurers less like
badass action heroes, and more like people dragged into the war by
necessity, and in the long run, defeated by the burden of their own
deeds." This was in response to discussion on whether a hero should gain Shadow points for killing orcs that hadn't instigated attacks, killing them after they surrendered, or to leave them in locked in cages to starve to death.
Killing evil creatures you are at war with wouldn't generate Shadow points, as that's just a fact of adventuring. Such killing is often done in self-defense, and with noble purpose. However, at some point a hero can go beyond a mere quick killing out of necessity, and resort to cruelty. Whether or not cruelty is directed at an evil creature or not is irrelevant for the purposes of gaining Shadow; it's the willing act of cruelty itself that darkens a hero's spirit, earning them a Shadow point.
I think another poster, Jakob, does a great job of explaining the necessity (or rather, the inevitability) of Shadow on an adventurer: "I think this is interesting, because I would imagine that a lot of the
Rohirrim suffered corruption for their cruelty in their war against the
orcs. That doesn't necessarily mean that they were acting wrong, only
that they were fighting a brutal war and that this was bound to have an
impact - and probably a negative one - upon their heart and soul.
wouldn't consider shadow points for certain behaviour as a "penalty" for
not choosing the right course of action - there just may be situations
when every course of action is cruel. It's a tragic element that fit's
quite well with a lot of Tolkien's stories - just read "Children of
Hurin", you'll see that Turin is a quite interesting example for a hero
tainted by cruelty. "The good guys did it in the books, therefore it
can't be cruel" isn't a good argument, I would say, because the good
guys may very well do cruel things and have to suffer the consequences."
For the purposes of generating interesting, tragic characters I think the Shadow mechanic does a superb job. It also exemplifies more wholly the actual consequences of going out and adventuring in ways that D&D or similar games don't (without heavy roleplaying specifically for that purpose). The risk of death is obvious, but the mental and emotional stress is often overlooked. In a way it's similar to a military veteran coming back from a war with PTSD or other psychological maladies (and we know these things happen, so it's interesting to factor them into an RPG).
As a final note, it's ironic that the system that supports the mechanic is also the one where orcs are pure evil, and thus the argument for guilt-free killing is more reasonable. The fact that the guilt is still there (at least in the case of heroes being cruel) is a strong statement.