Skip to main content
If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

The original Orb Ponderer talks sourcing memes from an old Lord of the Rings RPG

Having a crystal ball.

Twitter user thatsgoodweb posted an image on October 15th of a wizard in repose, his flowing beard and voluminous robe framing a face full of wrinkles staring intently at a glowing blue sphere upon a table carved with dragons and runes. The accompanying text simply read, “pondering my orb”.

That post quickly went viral - it currently sits at nearly 3,800 retweets and over 23,000 likes - and predictably spawned a cavalcade of memes, riffs and photoshops. As reported, the extremely pulp fantasy image came from the cover of Valar & Maiar: The Immortal Powers, a supplement to the second edition to the Middle-Earth Role Playing game published in 1993. It depicts Saruman studying his palantir and (spoilers?) likely communicating with his dark master, Sauron, or spying on Gandalf the Grey.

Iron Crown Enterprises first introduced the RPG in 1982 and maintained it until the license was revoked in 1999, perhaps preempting the success of Peter Jackson’s first film adaptation released nearly two years later. But how did this unlikely illustration from a decades-old - and now out of print for over twenty years - roleplaying game end up sparking the latest viral trend? Dicebreaker talked with thatsgoodweb to ponder the origin of the orb and how virality is treating him.

Watch on YouTube

So, where did you find the image used in the viral orb pondering tweet?

Thatsgoodweb: I found that one on Pinterest, one of a few places I find images to post. I saved the image then ran it through reverse image to find a high-res version.

Do you remember any of the details on the post? Did it have a title or reference to where the image itself came from?

My version was cropped from the cover for Valar and Maiar, a roleplaying handbook. The artist is Angus McBride. It was first used in 1988 for A Spy in Isengard, another role playing handbook, I believe.

Are you at all familiar with the old Middle-Earth Role Playing game? I have an inkling you might be if this popped up on your Pinterest search.

I wouldn’t say I’m too familiar with the actual gameplay. The art for all of those are fantastic though, I’m a huge fan of the early RPG and just fantasy art in general. I was raised in a religious home so D&D , roleplaying, fantasy, magic - all that stuff was a no no lol. That was relaxed later, so I dug in. Always been fascinated with it, though.

Oh, that's interesting. Your parents bit down hard on the Satanic Panic stuff. Do you regularly search for fantasy art? I noticed a lot of your posts pull stuff from old pulp genre novel covers and weird, goofy art like that.

Yeah, I’m always checking various places. Fantasy stuff always jumps out to me. Always a fan of anything over the top, strange, or surreal. RPG, old VHS covers, novels and such are full of great surrealist and fantastical imagery that always hits the spot.

What about Saruman pondering his orb struck you? Why did you pull that one out for a post?

Just one of those things, it just struck me as a cool image. The phrase “pondering my orb” just kinda popped in there. It was one of those impulsive things I didn’t think about. Had no idea it would catch on!

It's a bit trite to ask, but how did you feel as "pondering my orb" took off and began its viral climb?

The original source image, which shows the cover of Valar & Maiar: The Immortal Powers with illustration by Angus McBride.

It was fun. I’ve really enjoyed seeing people putting their spin on it. You really never know what will take off, so I’m just enjoying it while it’s hot. It was pretty wild when I saw it start to cross platforms into the other social media sites, for sure.

Do you play or follow RPG stuff, whether that's a casual D&D game or diving way deep into esoteric titles, such as Middle-Earth Role Playing?

I actually didn’t play my first real legit D&D tabletop game till right before covid began. I’d played RPG video games as a teen onward, but never the real deal. Some friends and I played irl and then Covid happened and we moved our campaign online. Even then, it was very fun. I haven’t played in a few months but hopefully soon!

Watch on YouTube

You mentioned being a huge fan of the early RPG - I'm assuming you meant Middle Earth Role Playing. Have you just read through the books?

It’s been a long time, but I definitely remember being a kid and going to the library and getting anything LotR I could get my hands on. Those went under the radar because they weren’t technically D&D and just looked like another novel. I also really gravitate towards the 70’s-80’s era in terms of art. I just love the color and style of those earlier years a lot.

So finding that image was almost like a homecoming for you and the orb - a reunion.

You could definitely say that, considering the year there’s a good chance I stumbled on that book from ‘88 as a kid!

Saruman pondering his orb, a la M. C. Escher's Hand with Reflecting Sphere.

Any interest in seeing how the RPG actually plays? Convince your D&D group to learn a decades-old system so you have an excuse to appreciate some weird fantasy art?

If I can get them together, for sure! Our DM had a whole shelf of books, so he just might have some LotR ones, too.

How does it feel to have a little piece of your childhood resurface in this specific way and then bring the internet some joy?

I do hope people might get into tabletop RPGs! I think a lot of people don’t realize how fun it can be. If the meme doesn’t do it, everyone should watch Harmonquest - one of my fave pieces of RPG media. It shows just how silly and fun you can be with it.

Wizard with a Orb Earring, riffing on Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. Image: Twitter

What's your favourite rendition of the orb meme?

It’s hard to pick a favourite, but I’m really enjoying people inserting it into classical paintings and such. I’m honestly blown away at how well some of them are done!

Anything else you want to add about this, yourself, or this silly, wonderful meme?

Only thing I would add is make sure you play some D&D and buy some cool art from people making it on [Twitter]. Lots of very cool artists and meme makers out there.

Read this next