I forget what I was listening to earlier, but it had an interesting comment about how the Lord of the Rings - the movies at least - could be viewed as a low level campaign - maybe around level 5 at least for Fellowship of the Ring. My mind immediately rejected the idea. Movie characters are almost always high level, and have feats and abilities that go beyond RPG rules - including the ability to always crit when dramatically appropriate/necessary.
However, the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea and could see it. It's alo relevant for other games, because in a sense it shows how framing can give a sense of larger than life, even if the system has a lot more to it. Today I want to talk about it...because, well, reasons.
Very Few Magic Items or Magic At All
The Lord of the Rings movies has very few magic items, and the items it shows are not particularly strong. Sting and Glamdring glow blue in the presence of orcs - which mostly means they're of elven make. Frodo has a mithril chain shirt. Aragorn eventually gets Anduril, but we don't see all that much special about it aside from it happening to be the sword that cut the ring from Sauron.
Beyond that though? There's nothing that shows Legolas's bow as better than any other bow. Gimli seems to be using normal weapons. The hobbits have normal swords. Boromir is kitted out in normal gear. The Horn of Gondor might be a magic item, but it also could just be a horn from Gondor.
The One Ring, the big thing everyone is freaking out about, does two things: it enthralls you, and it turns the wearer invisible. Supposedly it does more for Sauron, but that's more plot maguffinry than actual magic items.
And then you have the wizards. The only spells Gandalf really casts are light, and whatever the old man force push duel he fights Saruman with. Even his freeing of the Rohan king could just be an aid other action giving advantage on the save, or as small as a dispel magic being given some dramatic gravitas.
But in the end, really, we have a group of people with very little magic between them. Frodo's mithril shirt is a gift from his mentor Bilbo, and Aragorn doesn't get Anduril until much later.
Gandalf solos a balrog. Ok, that's a pretty big deal and is one of the key pieces of evidence that would indicate that Gandalf at least is high level. Which is possible. However, I'd also point out that Gandalf kills the Balrog off screen (for the most part) and we never really see that level of ability from him again ever. It reads more like a player did a heroic sacrifice - maybe they had to go - but then they could stay and wanted to keep playing their wizard so the GM worked it into the plot.
Aragorn / Gimli / Boromir
I'm lumping these guys together because for the most part they're fighters. Sure, Aragorn is a Ranger per the world, but we see him do very little ranging in the world and a whole lot of fighting. Low level that doesn't matter because Fighter and Ranger are basically the same thing up until level 5 with just a couple tweaks in how they do their stuff.
None of these guys do anything particularly amazing in combat. Their solid fighters. They do good work. Boromir goes down hard, as any PC doing that sort of thing should. Aragorn's "bad ass" moment in Fellowship is soloing an Orc Captain and that almost kills him.
Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Frodo
The hobbits are all obviously low level. It's more or less the point of the whole journey. They start as simple shire folk, and come back as seasoned adventurers. I don't think much needs to be said on this.
Legolas is the hardest to put at low level. Legolas glides through most of the action sequences like he's smurfing a low level account in a competitive game. We never really see Legolas break a sweat, and he comes out of combats that have Aragorn and Gimli exhausted and covered in blood as clean and fresh as he went it. He also is the one to put the most flare into his actions, and to clearly take the most attacks in a short period of time.
However, at the same time, nothing Legolas does particularly breaks the mold for what a 5th-7th level character can do. He is just grandiose in how he does those things, and has a tendency to roll better than the others and not be targetted.
Finally, the big thing is that throughout the story these adventurers are regularly facing orcs. Yes, in large numbers but not in such large numbers that you can just give credit to them for being high level. Most times they fight large numbers of orcs they have an army with them too. The exception to this is in Fellowship at the end, where they lose Boromir, Sam and Frodo flee, and Merry and Pippin are taken by the orcs who then themselves flee instead of keeping up the attack. Yes, Legolas, Gimli, Aragorn, and Boromir did well, but the challenge there wasn't "kill a hundred orcs" it was "survive 6 rounds of combat" and Boromir, Merry, and Pippin all failed at that objective.
Comparison Makes The Appearance
So why do they come across as high level? Because, for one, they all have histories that indicate their badasses. For another, with those histories, they are compared to 'normal' people and that shows them to be stronger. This is true at lower levels. As a 5th level PC you are a whole ton stronger than average NPCs. A wizard can wipe out a village with one fireball if the village is small enough, or the people gather in one location (a fireball has an area of about 1200 square feet.) A 5th level fighter can take out 4-6 guards with relative ease, likely killing 2 per round too.
However, in playing that up they look stronger than they would if you were also showing a much higher level character. It's why Legolas looks so strong because you get to compare him post battle to Aragorn and Gimli, and he just looks so much less affected by the fighting.
The lesson being, just keep your focus set and any level can feel epic.