Dwarven Cirth from The Hobbit

Note: Angelfire gives a good overview here.

Readers of The Hobbit will remember the dwarven runes that occur in several locations of the book, perhaps most prominently on Thorin's Map:

The map includes some neat drawings and English annotations, but there are red runes on the compass rose, underneath the pointing finger, and a long script hidden in the form of moon letters. In the story these are translated by Elrond, Lord of Rivendell. What isn't mentioned is that the runes, in fact the entire alphabet used in the book, are a substitution cipher!

For starters, observe the compass rose. From it we can infer the runes for N/E/S/W. It turns out left is north in Thorin's map, and the runes are one-to-one letter translations.

Translating the rest of the text is easy. There are several rune examples in the book and many of their translations are given too. In general, one can solve these things by piecing together simple words like 'the', 'a', 'I' and moving from there.

The Tolkien substitution scheme is given below.

There is no Q. One uses CW instead. For a complete discussion, see the Wikipedia entry on Cirth.

What I like about the Tolkien Dwarven Cipher

The Tolkien dwarven cipher is an excellent example of a hidden puzzle. At no point is the reader told they have to translate this text. The runes are all over the place, even showing up in plot-centric locations, but never as an in-your-face this-clearly-is-a-puzzle sort of way.

Decorative and subtle use allows for a non-invasive puzzle that satisfies those keen players who are itching to solve something without taking up the other players' time.

I also appreciate the difficulty of the puzzle. Substitution ciphers are some of the easiest ciphers to break, making them approachable for most every player. Plus, the dual-word substitutions and representation of I and J with the same rune (something commonly done, such as the two-square cipher) makes solving it non-trivial and i.m.o. more satisfying.

Tolkien has provided a neat Easter egg that we can draw inspiration from.

A Further Note on Tolkien Languages

Tolkien was into linguistics and created a ton of languages, including all sorts of variations of elvish, orcish, black speech, etc. While the others are much more complicated, and are not merely substitutions on English, they can be used to give your game a neat flair. I do not recommend using them as puzzles for your players, but hey, whatever floats your boat (or your players').

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