Sunday, June 24, 2012

Lorien & the Halls of the Elven Smiths - a rambling review and meditation

I've decided to loosen up on these reviews/overviews of old roleplaying game supplements, and try to put them into some kind of context besides gaming. 

Lorien & the Halls of the Elven Smiths is a sourcebook for Iron Crown Enterprise(ICE)'s Middle-earth Roleplaying (MERP) game. It's only 64 pages long, which seems to me to be thin for such a subject, but ICE crammed a lot of content into these books, especially when they decreased font size for the descriptions of locations.

Lorien is one of those locations often covered in roleplaying games that make me wonder exactly what the designers intended it to be used for. This isn't a set-up for a criticism. I'm genuinely curious. I was looking at this book, and others like Minas Tirith, and it struck me that they don't hold a lot of potential for traditional RPG adventuring. When I say "traditional RPG adventuring," I mean the classic D&D dungeoncrawl. Sure, there was also a lot of social interaction between the player characters and their environment, even in the most basic D&D adventure predicated on beating up monsters and taking their stuff. This usually manifested in exchanging crude threats with evil wizards that were about to be handed their doom, haggling with merchants while trying to sell all the ripped-up chainmail and machetes stripped off that orc platoon they just clobbered, or trying to get a bar fight started while the characters were indulging in ale and whores. Of course, none of those last two things were ever described too graphically; it was mostly just an assumption they were involved as the players had their characters trash yet another incarnation of the Prancing Pony. So, I never had that much familiarity with roleplaying game sessions that involved much in the way of social niceties. Lorien doesn't fit the classic old school paradigm I'm familiar with too well.

I've had this sourcebook for well over 25 years now, and bits and pieces of it filtered into games I ran, though often obliquely. That is, the player characters may have passed through an elven kingdom on their way to kick some orc ass, and the descriptions and some characters from Lorien made their way into the game, but never as the basis of anything close to an adventure. I never played or ran a game where the player characters were evil, so the chance for armed conflict was never there for a place like Lorien. Thus, with no doors to kick down and inhabitants to put to the sword, the players I gamed with - and I, too, I won't exempt myself here - had no real use for hanging out there for any length of time.

That was then. Now, being old and decrepit, I find the notion of such a game, or at least a session or three of it, appealing. I think if I'd tried running a game like that back in the day, it could have been really memorable. There's a lot of potential for both the characters and their players to become invested in the world of the game, and weave themselves into the narrative of the campaign setting. Take Lorien specifically, and the role it played in The Lord of the Rings. I'm going to concentrate on the book rather than the movie, though a lot of this discussion (one-side though it may be) can apply to either.

Lorien was a pivotal place for the Fellowship. After their disastrous foray into Moria, it gave them a place to rest and regroup, beyond the sight of their enemies. Beyond that very basic (and very old school gaming) use for the place, it was also an emotional pivot point. The ties between the members of the Fellowship were deepened; this is no small thing, narratively speaking, given the further disasters to hit the group later in the story. It strengthened the bond between the peoples of Middle-earth; the hobbits gained even more exposure for their people and knowledge of the world beyond their Shire. But that had already been done in Rivendell. What hadn't been done before was for the rift between elves and dwarves to begin to be closed, with Gimli's startling infatuation with Galadriel. The beginnings of an understanding sprang up, with the realization that both races shared an appreciation for beauty, though expressed in different ways, and sometimes in different forms. In many ways, the stopover in Lorien helped forge the future of Middle-earth.

So how does this translate over into a game? That depends on what you want out of the game. If you're more inclined to a classic-D&D paradigm, then spending much time in Lorien may motivate nothing beyond eyerolls and boredom. I get that. Hell, I played that for years. But if the players want to make an impact on the world their characters live in, in a larger, perhaps more far-reaching way, the chapters of The Lord of the Rings set in Lorien are a good example of how this can be done.
The heart of Lorien.

A lot of that may seem old hat to many gamers. The internet has let me discover that there has always been a vast spectrum of ways that roleplaying games were played. For that matter, there is a vast spectrum of ways just D&D itself is played.* Indulge a cranky old grognard like me as he rediscovers fire. I know there were groups out there who were doing this long before I even picked up a D&D book, circa 1979. I know that, yet I still find myself surprised when I run across evidence of games that were really heavily roleplay-intensive at the same time my gaming groups were applying subtle negotiating tactics like kicking down doors and slapping around town guards. That's why I can now look at Lorien & the Halls of the Elven Smiths and see it with new eyes, and recognize the missed opportunities.
Once a thriving hub of Elven civilization, Eregion had become an empty land by the time the Fellowship passed through it. Ost-in-Edhil is at the southern edge of the map.

All that pontificating aside, there isn't a lot of roleplaying-intensive material in this book. There are some character sketches and notes on the elves and their history, but the bulk of the book is made up of more objective material, like timelines, climate charts, rundowns of the flora and fauna of the region, and, of course, lists and charts of game statistics for characters, creatures, and details of "military" units. There isn't anything much in the way of nuanced character studies and detailed cultural essays. That's fine for someone like me, who never liked too much of that kind of stuff in the first place (just give me the basics and let me fill in the details), and who has also read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion multiple times. For others, though, this is a shortcoming of the book.

Lorien & the Halls of the Elven Smiths covers a lot of territory and history in its 64 pages. Beyond the elven forest itself, which is memorable to fans of both book and movies, this sourcebook also covers Ost-in-Edhil, a great elven city that was the center of an elven nation long since destroyed by Sauron and his forces by the time of The Lord of the Rings. It was on the other side of the Misty Mountains from Lorien, and really rates a sourcebook all its own simply due to the sheer potential shown by its history, but it makes a kind of sense to lump it in with Lorien. The big reason for this is that Galadriel and Celeborn once ruled over all the elves in the region, from Lorien into Eregion, though it changed hands multiple times, including Lorien once being ruled by another elven couple.

Maybe it's just me, but they look like they were in the middle of an argument when they had to pose for this picture.
This book is a good illustration of just how vast and meticulously-drawn Middle-earth is. It does so by trying to tie together several thousand years of history and vast swathes of territory. It may not succeed completely - by necessity, a 64-page book just can't adequately cover five or six thousand years of history - but it creates a thumbnail sketch with which a person could use it to provide the framework for a more detailed game experience. Tolkien's historical creation is so consistent and well-put-together that even a cursory overview like this book can easily provide the reader with a good, basic understanding of its subject.

Lorien is the classic example, and basic prototype, of the "elven wood" that has become by now a cliche in modern fantasy. Time passes differently within its borders than it does in the lands of mortals. It is the haven for some of the last of the most powerful elves left in the world. It also is a haven for such things as plants the elves love, such as the enormous mallorn trees they build houses in. Tolkien drew on myth and legend for the properties of his elven forest, but he refined the concept and made it his own. It's hard to find a similar setting in a modern fantasy story that doesn't bear at least a little resemblance to Lorien.

Some of this may be a result of the Elven Ring Galadriel wears, and that ring is detailed in game terms where it is, indeed, the basis of a lot of Lorien's nature, though the fact that it is wielded by someone like Galadriel almost certainly amplifies that power and draws on the nature of wielder, or reinforces and helps strengthen that nature. The game designers who worked on MERP did a decent job of trying to model the powers of the Rings in game terms, though Tolkien's original description of them is vague.

I'd like to note the artwork of Liz Danforth in this book. The cover is by the inimitable Angus McBride, but Danforth dominates the interior. Her art showed up quite often in the MERP line, as well as in a number of other roleplaying games. It has an elegant, sleek, and often ethereal look to it that really suits Tolkien's elves. It doesn't work as well with gritty subject matter, like orcs and trolls - though there are exceptions - but Danforth is in her element with magic-infused, immortal, and inhumanly beautiful subjects, including evil ones. She still works today, and has a distinct, memorable style.

Speaking of art, the designers of this book took an interesting concept and used it as the basis for elven architecture. They ran with the "Three Rings" concept, making a lot of the structures built by the Ost-in-Edhil elves be based on triangles:

The idea never quite jibed with how I pictured elven architecture, but the more I look at it now, the more I like it. I may well use it for the next game I run...if I ever get to run one. Anyway, someone at ICE must have been a bit of an architecture buff, because some of the illustrations of elven buildings bear more than a passing resemblance to something that might have been built by Frank Lloyd Wright.
I think not.
Dragging out and looking at all these old game books transports me back in time.  It was a time that was pre-internet, when it was tough to tell what games were being played and by whom and where. I rarely ran across anyone who played anything other than D&D. The only gamers I knew of who played even a little MERP were my own group. D&D has survived in one form or another for decades, and a vigorous community exists now for each edition and version of the game produced. I wonder about games like MERP; there were a couple of versions of it, and quite a number of supplements for it were published over the course of something like 15+ years. I wonder if there are any groups out there still playing it on a regular basis? I occasionally see someone post online about their D&D group celebrating 20, 25, even 30+ years of gaming together, which is mind-boggling to me. I wonder if there is some last, lonely group still getting together and playing MERP on a weekly, monthly, or even yearly basis? I like to think there is such a group, or several of them. I like to think the same is true for even more obscure games, like Aftermath! or Lords of Creation or Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes. A few dwindling groups, holding out against the coming of oblivion...much like Tolkien's elves.

*I keep mentioning D&D despite this being a review (such as it is) of a non-D&D game book. That's because D&D was my primary game, and I looked at everything as potential fodder for it.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 - a review

Published in 1974, this book posits a post-apocalyptic world that seems more realistic than most. Once a speculative future vision, it is now an interesting alternate history.

Just over 200 pages, the book manages to cram in a lot of character development, develops believable relationships between characters, and paints a vivid picture of the setting.

Map of Texas in a world-that-wasn't, circa 1999
The premise is that seven years before the time of the story, the UK, its water supply tainted by LSD, nukes Ireland and China, and China responds. Eventually all the world powers are dragged into the conflict, with the US and USSR on the same side, surprisingly enough. By the time of the beginning of the story, the world has lost something like 90% of its population due to nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare. Israel managed to avoid destruction, and is one of the only intact nations on Earth, and even suffers from overpopulation. Israeli mercenaries are found worldwide. In this book, an Israeli mercenary tank unit works for the US government in its war against a Texas that has seceded. Texas has captured the US president from a meeting in Oklahoma, and may or may not be ready to hand him over to the Chinese, who are embroiled in a war against the US in Alaska.

This book isn't lighthearted, but there is definitely an undercurrent of hope running through it. Still, there are downbeat elements; I was struck by the account of a joint US/Russian Mars mission. WWIII broke out while the mission was underway, and the crew lost contact with Earth. They continued the mission, landed on Mars - the first humans to do so - and returned to find the Earth embroiled in the aftermath of Armageddon. The somber account of their experiences is moving and succinctly told, adding to the atmosphere evoked by the book.

The cover image is misleading, by the way. There is no attack as depicted, though there is an encounter with Native Americans that gives an interesting glimpse into how their various cultures have been impacted by the global war and collapse.

This is a remarkable book. For how slender it is, it contains a lot of content. The setting is rich with possibility, and given the number of alternate history books out now, it could have served for a whole series of books. As it is, this book is an example of just how good science fiction of the 1970s could be.

Another aside...

The Void and endings have haunted me as long as I've been able to contemplate them, and even before that I can recall being troubled by them without being able to articulate why. It's the ephemeral nature of existence that whispers to me. Moments in time frozen in memory like in a strobe light. It's not just endings, either; it's those moments where your life intersects with another, even for split second, and then the moment is gone. I remember being a kid in my dad's '71 LTD somewhere on I-71, looking out the window as another car glided past as it slowly overtook us in the passing lane. I locked eyes with an older lady passenger in the passing car, and it was that moment that I realized all those cars we pass, all those buildings, are filled with people who all have their own stories and lives, and I was profoundly sad that I could never know about them.

In media res...

I think I'm finally settling into a mindset where I can be OK with remaining in Ohio. I miss SoCal, of course, but I'm revisiting the feelings I had about it that I experienced back when I was in my early teens. Then, it was a far-off, almost mythical dream to want to go there. The further I get from SoCal in time, the more I flash back to 1979, sitting in my buddy Rick's basement on cold winter nights, poring through old comics and girly mags, dreaming of the girls in California.

Adding to this melancholic feel was the trip I made out to a local Sears a week ago. I had to pick up a "laundry work surface" that goes on top of the washer/dryer set my mother just bought. They messed up the delivery, so I haggled a discount on the "work surface" as compensation. Anyway, this Sears is out to the west of where I live, about 7 miles. That area really shows the decline of Ohio. The Sears is on the Midway Mall, one of the earliest malls built, being put up in 1969. The place used to be hopping; it borders a couple of highways, including the Ohio Turnpike. Now, the lot is mostly empty, and a lot of the storefronts are vacant. The Sears was eerily quiet. I had to go up to the second floor to get the receipt I needed. The entire floor was silent. I looked for a salesperson. A couple of guys came up the escalator to look at TVs or appliances, then left. I almost gave up and went back downstairs when a woman finally came up the escalator and turned out to be an employee. She helped me out, and I went down and out and drove around to the pick-up area. It was even more silent and empty. Grass grew up in cracks in the asphalt. A row of parking spots had signs to park there and dial a number for them to bring out the merchandise. The first space had the last two numbers of the phone number peeled off the sign. I moved to another and dialed. It rang well over a dozen times until a robot answered and didn't even mention Sears; it just said "We are not in right now. Leave your name and number." Screw that. I drove up to the merchandise pick-up doors, parked, and got out. The old pick-up area I remembered from years ago had the window boarded up where you would show your receipt to a person. Now, a computer station was set up to scan your receipt. I did so, and watched a countdown on a screen above me that guaranteed I'd have my item in under 5 minutes. Again, the silence and lack of any kind of activity was unnerving. I noticed the landscaping around the place was old and weedy. No trucks were anywhere nearby, even though numerous dock doors stretched off into the distance, servicing various other stores. I reflected on how far Sears has fallen. Once a juggernaut, it staggers on, barely avoiding falling flat on its face. Suddenly two guys burst through the pair of swinging warehouse doors into the lobby where I stood. They brought out the item, and looked dubiously at the Focus I was driving. 25+ years of doing that exact kind of job took over and I slipped the "work surface" into the car with a bit of maneuvering. The two guys seemed genuinely surprised. I scoffed silently - you guys should know how to do this! my inner monologue growled.  I hopped into the car and was only too glad to get the hell out of that empty place. I can't imagine that place not giving up the ghost soon.

A melancholy aside.

Occasionally I'm struck by how tenuous the link is between any given person and me. Thinking about it, it amazes me how many friends I've lost track of over the years. I usually make an effort to keep in touch, but before Facebook, it was all too easy to have phone calls never answered or returned, or emails that bounced back or that never received a reply. There are people I haven't seen or spoken to in years, whom I believed I would know forever at one time. It's also sad to realize that in some cases, it's because the person in question has no desire to keep in touch. Of course, there are also the bad pennies who keep popping up time and again in one's life, apparently just to aggravate the shit out of us.

This kind of thing makes me think about something that has run through my mind my whole life - the last holdout of order and civilization before oblivion. The place where the sidewalk peters out and beyond is only uninhabited lands, or the point where the last light from the last window fades from view. The image that haunts me the most is from Wells' The Time Machine. The time traveler is far in the future where only the Morlocks and Eloi now live, heirs to the human race. He sees evidence of great and wondrous civilizations around him, proof that man achieved greatness. Then the implication hit me: who was the last? Who was there when the lights went out? Who was the last person like us who looked out the window one fine final day and left the house on one last errand? In a way, a sudden extinction due to war or some-such disaster seems less terrifying to me than the prospect of us simply devolving slowly back into the animal state. At least that way there's the comfort, such as it is, of knowing we went out while still having potential.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Free City of Haven - a forgotten and unfinished near-classic

There are a couple of editions of this; the cover pictured, the original version, is the one I own. The book is loose-leaf, three-hole-punched, and with cardstock maps, all contained in a ziploc bag which I lost long ago.

If this had been a complete product giving an overview of a fantasy RPG city, it would have been an unequivocal success. I say this based on the quality of the material that is present. That's what's so frustrating about this product; it had the makings of a true classic. I bought this new way back when, and it took me a while to realize that there was supposed to be at least one or two further releases that would complete the city. It would take years before I learned that at least one of those additional city sections had been released, and that a third had been worked on, though it remains unreleased.

That said, the material presented here is fantastic. In some ways, Haven was a city ahead of its time. Meticulously detailed, it contrasted with Judges Guild's wild and woolly City-State of the Invincible Overlord by being more "realistic," for lack of a better term. Don't get me wrong; I love the old City-State with its chaotic nature. Pure fun. But The Free City of Haven presented a functioning city in which the rule of law prevailed. This is an important distinction; I can't recall anything else from the same time period in which so much care was taken to make the city work like a city might in a fantasy setting.

This product was intended for Gamelords' Thieves Guild RPG. That game was, essentially, a D&D knock-off that concentrated on (wouldn't you know) thieves. Thus, a city like Haven is exactly the kind of setting perfect for such a game. Thieves Guild was enough like D&D that Haven could easily be ported over to the latter game, with a few relatively minor changes, if any.

Centaur public transit in the Free City of Haven
As I mentioned, Haven is meticulously detailed. Businesses and characters are detailed and relationships established. This is definitely a fantasy city, with centaur teamsters and taxis, elven enclaves, and halfling judges. Personalities and motivations are given to the non-player-characters, enough so that Haven feels like it's alive, humming with activity that goes on before, during, and after the PCs show up. I used the material present to run a few city adventures back in the day, and it made me wish I'd had the entire city to play with. Had it been complete, this would be hands down the greatest fantasy RPG city ever designed, in my opinion. The enterprising game master will find a lot to work with here, and may be inspired to flesh out the remaining portions of the city, making it truly their own.

Aesheba, Greek Africa - a review of a regional sourcebook for roleplaying games

This is a "generic" supplement designed to be used with any fantasy roleplaying game system. In this case, it covers a continent much like Africa, with some important differences.

Let me quote from the back cover:

"Take the largest ocean in your fantasy game campaign, and add one continent. Start with Africa, circa 300 B.C., and shrink it a bit. Remove the Nile, so the Egyptians remain a primitive culture, and redesign the terrain features while leaving the ecology and climate about the same. Now add Greek colonists along the north coast, and let the whole thing brew for three centuries."

The biggest part of this book details the city-states established by the Greek colonists, as well as a native kingdom with a robust civilization. There is a lost civilization feel to the Greek city-states, with a mix of Greek and native cultures. The text suggests that these colonies would make for good entry points for more traditional, Eurocentric adventuring parties. That's certainly one way to use the setting, though certainly not the only one. The main weakness of this book is the relative lack of detail about native cultures. One native kingdom, Gloriosus, is detailed, but I would like to have seen more about the history and cultures of this fantasy Africa. Some years back, a fantasy Africa setting called Nyambe was published, and it was to Africa as baseline D&D was to Europe. I could see Aesheba: Greek Africa being used in conjunction with Nyambe to add depth to both. But this is a review of Aesheba on its own.

There is a section on native magic. It's a decent discussion, but unsurprisingly the section is hampered by having to be generic, system-wise. This is also true of the various creatures discussed throughout the book. Wisely, the bulk of the material is more about the setting and characters, rather than game mechanics.

I was struck by the relative lack of monsters discussed in the book. There were some, but not nearly as many as I was expecting, given how diverse the animal life is in real-world Africa. I have to assume there are as many, or more, legendary monsters in African cultures as in their European (and Asian, and American, etc.) counterparts. This, along with the discussion of magic and lack of mention of magic items, gives the setting a "low magic" feel. That's not necessarily bad, though I would have liked to see a more mythic take on the source material. Still, the effect is something akin to a lot of swords & sorcery, with rare, dangerous magic and warrior-based cultures.

This is a distinct setting, one not often covered by roleplaying games. Though it is necessarily limited due to the nature of the product, it's still worth having as an adventuring site, though I think it would work better as a temporary diversion rather than the home of a long-term campaign. Africa is rich with potential for roleplaying games, but this specific product's design goal wasn't to fully tap that potential - see the aforementioned Nyambe for something more along those lines. Still, this is an interesting book, one that has stuck in my mind for almost 25 years(!) now.

Town of Baldemar - a review of a RPG town sourcebook

Town of Baldemar is a generic roleplaying game supplement. It details a town that can be used as a home base for adventurers, or as an adventure site itself. The town is small enough to be easily plugged into a campaign world without sticking out in some way, but is large enough to serve as the safe haven adventurers retreat to after delving in dangerous dungeons.

City quarters, businesses, and characters are meticulously detailed. Reading through the book will reveal that all of these things are interwoven and dynamic, creating the feel of a small but bustling town. There are some villains and a few heroes, but most of the non-player characters are varying shades of gray. As one might expect with a faux-medieval fantasy town, there are the usual organizations, from the government and town guards to merchant and thieves guilds. Though the town is written to be humanocentric, a number of characters could be swapped out for fantasy races like elves and dwarves with little trouble.

The amount of magic is pretty low, considering this is a fantasy RPG town. There are wizards and priests, but it's up the individual gamemaster as to just how much magic they wield; in some cases, such characters could be rationalized to not have any magical abilities at all. The writer seemed to take care not to make anything too explicit, except in a handful of cases. In so doing, it allows for Baldemar to be customized to the individual campaign world more than most such supplements.

Town of Baldemar may not be to everyone's taste. Some may see it as boring. It's not a flashy town. However, I see it as almost perfect for player characters to settle in and use as a jumping-off point to adventure, a place to regroup and resupply. And, if they so choose, they could become part of the town's culture, delving into the interwoven plots and intrigues of the town, becoming attached to it to the point that when it's threatened, the characters rise to the occasion to defend it as their home. Plus, some of those threats can come from within...

I included the back cover to show the "personal promise" Gary Gygax had imprinted on these New Infinities products. There's something charming about this. It seems to me that Gygax really did make a point of making sure these were quality products. The art was nothing to speak of; at best, it was average. The writing was generally bland. However, the content of the books in this line is uniformly good, though it tends to be on the bland side. The upside of that is that the content is very adaptable. Had it been on the wild, cutting edge end of the spectrum, it would have been too far out there to be easily plugged into a campaign world.

Lost Realm of Cardolan - a long-forgotten Middle-earth kingdom of the Dunedain.

Umm, yikes.
They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and the towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight. - The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter VII: "In the House of Tom Bombadil"

'What in the name of wonder?' began Merry, feeling the golden circlet that had slipped over one eye. Then he stopped, and a shadow came over his face, and he closed his eyes. 'Of course, I remember!' he said. 'The men of Carn Dum came on us at night, and we were worsted. Ah! the spear in my heart!' He clutched at his breast. 'No! No!' he said, opening his eyes. 'What am I saying? I have been dreaming.' - The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter VIII: "Fog on the Barrow Downs"

Arveleg son of Argeleb, with the help of Cardolan and Lindon, drove back his enemies from the Hills; and for many years Arthedain and Cardolan held in force a frontier along the Weather Hills, the Great Road, and the lower Hoarwell.[...]A remnant of the faithful among the Dunedain of Cardolan also held out in Tyrn Gorthad (the Barrowdowns), or took refuge in the forest behind.[...]In the days of Argeleb II the plague came into Eriador from the South-east, and most of the people of Cardolan persished[...]It was at this time that an end came of the Dunedain of Cardolan, and evil spirits out of Angmar and Rhudaur entered into the deserted mounds and dwelt there. - The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A: Annals of the Kings and Rulers, I: The Numenorean Kings, (iii)Eriador, Arnor, and the Heirs of Isildur

Embattled from the start, destined never to greatness, Cardolan was one of the "little kingdoms" that resulted from the splitting of the kingdom of Arnor into three parts. Overshadowed in the west by its brother kingdom Arthedain, and beset from the east by its lesser, corrupted brother kingdom of Rhudaur, Cardolan was doomed to nonexistence in the end, the greatness it managed to create lost to the ages, not even a memory to most in Middle-earth.

Ostensibly a sourcebook for a region of Middle-earth, Lost Realm of Cardolan can be plugged into another game setting, if one wishes, with a fairly low amount of work. This book details a region of Middle-earth that was empty and desolate by the time of The Lord of the Rings, and though the time period covered is roughly fourteen hundred years before the events in that book, even during that time the region was fragmenting and falling into ruin and chaos. Adding to this is that not much was detailed by Tolkien about the region. So the authors had to create much out of whole cloth, which could irk Tolkien purists, but it makes for a supplement that is more universally useful than most setting sourcebooks for a licensed setting.

The time setting for the book is when the kingdom of Cardolan, ravaged by centuries of war and plague, is fragmented and shaky. Various petty princes vie for the remnants of empire in Cardolan as the population steadily flees or is killed. Evil spirits invade barrows. The evil empire of Angmar works through its proxy Rhudaur to undermine and bleed dry Cardolan and Arthedain.

Hobbits are elusive and dwindling in numbers as more and more of them head for the new Shire established for them to the West. Mercenaries abound, including a unit of polearmsmen called Raggers. This is the only instance I know of in a book like this in which a unit of polearm-wielding troops is featured. 
The Raggers, polearm troops with a cool name.
Trolls and orcs carve out a slice of empire. Lost treasures lie waiting for discovery. Cities and towns are often declining, with Tharbad the most notable settlement, and the one-time capital of Metraith more of a ghastly joke than a seat of power. The future is uncertain. It's a dangerous time, with peace and recovery more wishful thinking than possibilities...perfect for adventurers wanting to make their marks.
The postage-stamp-sized maps above are of southwestern Cardolan. I'll post bigger versions below, but the above is how they are positioned in relation to each other.
Eryn Vorn is a substantial forest along Cardolan's coast; no doubt full of mystery, as are all of Tolkien's woods.
Besides a fair amount of woods, this part of Cardolan is served by a port city.

The region is isolated and desolate enough that it could be placed in a suitably bleak section of a once-great empire in another game setting, including a homebrew campaign; even the names wouldn't necessarily have to be changed, unless the players are very familiar with Tolkien's work to a great degree. That assumes you don't want to use it in the context in which it's presented, the mid-Third Age of Middle-earth. If you have the desire to use it for its intended purpose, it fills in a relatively blank spot on the map. Using it in the time period of The Lord of the Rings would take a good bit of rationalization, as the sourcebook posits a setting that is more densely populated and organized than is implied in Tolkien's books. It could be used in an early Fourth Age game campaign if the players were willing to accept that remnants of Sauron's forces fled into the region after the Dark Lord's defeat and set up ramshackle kingdoms, working against vassals of King Elessar sent to re-establish the northern kingdom. In fact, that's the most appealing possibility to me.

This book would be best used in conjunction with Thieves of Tharbad and Bree and the Barrow-Downs. Tharbad is still a major settlement in this region, and Lost Realm of Cardolan only gives it a cursory look, with a map (which you can see in the Thieves of Tharbad entry to this blog) and a column or so of description. In the time in which this book is set, the Barrow-Downs have yet to be invaded by the Wights and other spirits that would infest the area in later years, so not much is said about them here.

I think this book deserves to be praised very highly because I find it to be really useful beyond its intended setting. It also has an edgier feel, more swords & sorcery than Tolkienesque, which is a nice change of pace.

Calenhad, a Beacon of Gondor - a review of a sourcebook for a great fortified tower in Middle-earth

Calenhad is one of seven beacons that stand along the northern border of Gondor in Middle-earth. When danger was at hand, huge fires were lit to serve as an alarm. This book portrays the beacons as border fortresses.
A closer look at the beautiful, evocative cover image by David and Elissa Martin.
This is a good, solid product. The fortress, with its walls and towers, seems well-designed and realistic, something which is not as common as you would think in RPG supplements.

One level of the beacon tower.
This is more of a site than an adventure, making it particularly adaptable and useful. Someone running a Middle-earth-based game could use it as a good example of a Gondorian fort.

Notes are provided to use it as exactly what it is: one of the beacon towers of Gondor. This latter use may provide limited possibilities for adventure, depending on the time period of the campaign being run. After all, it is located in the interior of Gondor at its height, and on the border of its great ally in later times. As mentioned, though, it could easily be placed somewhere closer to adventure with just a change of the name. The players could be facing hordes of Orcs in no time.
Like this guy.

A nearby town that supports and is defended by the fortress of Calenhad.
It could also be used in a setting other than Middle-earth; it would fit easily into any RPG setting with a vaguely medieval background.
An early, simple signal platform where Calenhad would stand in later centuries.

It could be used as a waypoint for adventurers, the last safe spot before proceeding into dangerous territory, or as an enemy fort that needs to be taken. It also looks like a good example of the kind of stronghold a player character in a game like MERP or D&D might end up building or taking control of when they achieve a certain status or level of power, especially since various stages of development of the place are shown.
As Gondor's power increased, so, too, did it strengthen its communications network, replacing more vulnerable platforms with towers.
Overall, this is a very useful RPG supplement, versatile and well-designed. The artwork is outstanding, some of the very best done for the Middle-earth Roleplaying line.

Weathertop, the Tower of the Wind - a review of a sourcebook for Weathertop as it was, and as it may be again

Weathertop is an iconic location in Middle-earth. In The Lord of the Rings movies, it is a ruin; in the book, it is barely even that, little more than a ring of broken stone overgrown with grass. In this product, it is shown at its height as an important fortress and observation post for the northern Dunedain kingdom of Arnor, and later Arthedain. It became a bone of contention among the three kingdoms that resulted from the fragmentation of Arnor, as the fortress was located where the borders of Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur met.
Map of Middle-earth showing the fractured northern kingdom of Arnor.

Amon Sul was home to one of the palantir, or seeing-stones, until the evil kingdom of Angmar destroyed the fortress. The palantir was saved, though later lost, but the tower remained broken for nearly a millennium and a half. It would be rebuilt in the early Fourth Age by King Elessar, formerly known as Aragorn, as he reestablished the northern kingdom of Arnor.
A closer look at the cover image.
Weathertop or Amon Sul, the Tower of the Wind, is the subject of another in the "Fortresses of Middle-earth" series produced for the Middle-earth Roleplaying game. This is more of a site than an adventure. That is, there is no overarching plot. The tower and attendant structures are detailed and populated, and some notes are given for how it might be used.

The fortress at different stages of its history.
There was something both grand mysterious about Amon Sul, or Weathertop as it was mostly known in latter days. Even bereft of its tower and fortress, it was a defensible place, with a breathtaking view of the surrounding lands. It was a natural place to get the lay of the land and look for danger to avoid, but it also drew the attention of those who would do harm. Gandalf fought the Ringwraiths here, who later returned to attack Aragorn and the Hobbits. You'd think Gandalf and Aragorn both would have seen that coming. Still, it must have been hard to resist the thought of getting such a good look at their surroundings. Plus, the history of the place must have an allure, especially for Aragorn, who was heir to the kingdom to which Weathertop once belonged.

It must have been a splendid place in its heyday, and this book tends to reinforce that idea. The cover is a complete extrapolation, but an attractive one. In some ways, this book's version of Amon Sul seems more humble than I imagined it would be. It's a fine place as presented, but given the impressive fortresses of Isengard and Minas Tirith, one would think Weathertop, home to a palantir and one of the most important strongholds in the region, would have been more imposing. Regardless, the Weathertop we have here is arresting.

As presented, the tower would require that the game be played either long before the time of the book and movies, or a bit after. However, there is nothing to prevent this fortress being renamed and placed elsewhere as an example of Gondorian martial construction. It would also work really well in a game set during the early Fourth Age, a base for adventurers to foray out to help tame the wilderness that will become part of the Reunited Kingdom. Weathertop and Calenhad, another in the "Fortresses of Middle-earth" series, are similar in all these regards. It (and Calenhad) could also be used in an entirely different setting, unrelated to Middle-earth. It could fit well in any setting with a high fantasy/vaguely medieval feel, and the game statistics can be used as a guideline for adapting the fortress to other games.

Especially one that features knightly characters.

This is a remarkably useful product that with a little thought can be used for a wide variety of games and settings. Need a strong tower or lookout point somewhere in your game world? This may well fit that need.

Mount Gundabad - a review of a sourcebook for a mighty orc fortress in Middle-earth

An underground Orc fortress within the northern Misty Mountains looms as a threat, housing hordes loyal to Sauron. Strategically located, it must be guarded against by all those who live in the upper Anduin vales, including the Elves in Mirkwood. The Orcs of that fortress are a hardy folk, and can even march as far as the Lonely Mountain if the temptation of battle and treasure is great enough. That fortress is Mount Gundabad.

The Middle-earth Roleplaying Game (MERP) by Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) released a slew of products set in the most famous fantasy setting. Many of those products were adventure sites, famous and not-so-famous locations in Middle-earth where daring adventurers could face danger. Mount Gundabad is one of the not-so-famous locations.

Mount Gundabad is mentioned by Tolkien in the Appendices for The Lord of the Rings, with little revealed about it beyond it being an Orc fortress. Mount Gundabad also plays a pivotal role in The Hobbit as an army of Orcs forays out from it, leading a huge part of the Orcs of the Misty Mountains, enraged by the killing of the Great Goblin, and tempted by the horde of the recently-late Smaug, to clash with Elves, Men, Dwarves, and Eagles - as well as a lone, mighty bear - at the Battle of Five Armies at Erebor, the Lonely Mountain. ICE took the minimal information Tolkien provided and created a mountain Orc fortress that is a well-detailed dungeon crawl with surrounding lands crawling with Orc tribes and rugged Men. But mostly Orcs. Like this guy:
Mount Gundabad was a bastion for the Dark Lord in one form or another, working through his servants, throughout much of the Second and Third Ages. It was the capital of the Orcs of Angmar, and survived the fall of that evil land. ICE's version of it is a three-horned mountain which has been mined and worked to create a great multilevel underground orc city and fortress. The result is a megadungeon, in the parlance of fantasy roleplaying games (RPGs).

Nary a hooka-smoking caterpillar in sight
There are a number of non-player characters detailed, the movers and shakers of the orc kingdom. There is an overview of the history of Mount Gundabad, up to and into the early Fourth Age, and a rundown of Orc tribes. There are tables of random encounters, and a page that goes over the various types of fungi found in Mount Gundabad. This last was amusing, as it harkened back to early modules (adventures) for Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), in which fungi often played various roles, from food to illumination to hazards.

ICE's MERP books are usually easily adaptable to other game systems, and in the case of Mount Gundabad, it should fit comfortably into other fantasy RPGs, particularly D&D. Orc fortresses were staples of old-school RPG play, and Mount Gundabad should fit the bill for such an adventure site, regardless of what game is being played.

Some MERP books went fairly far afield in maintaining a Tolkienesque feel. That is, some stretched the notion of what might reasonably fit in Middle-earth. Mount Gundabad seems reasonable in that regard, based on what was shown in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books.

Mount Gundabad, as a military base, seems more well-organized than the Orc stronghold further south in the Misty Mountains, the one that Bilbo Baggins managed to find his way through. Despite the Great Goblin's demise being the trigger for the Orcs to sally forth to attack the Free Peoples at Erebor, Bolg, the leader at the time of the Orc army in Mount Gundabad, seemed to be a powerful leader of all Orcs in the Misty Mountains. How these different Orc populations, the ones in Mount Gundabad and the forces of the Great Goblin, are related to each other is hard to fathom. Perhaps Bolg and the Great Goblin were "kings" in their respective regions, and Bolg was simply outraged that a brother king of his folk would be killed almost out-of-hand. Whatever the case, Bolg's actions are quick and decisive, where the Great Goblin seemed to run a more casual kingdom.

There are a few adventure ideas provided, which are mostly infiltration-types, which makes sense. It's difficult to imagine an adventuring party - or fellowship - making a frontal assault on the place. The adventures provide an "in" to get the characters into Mount Gundabad, where they could find themselves wandering the place, lost, or just randomly wreaking havoc.
Massive-looking, right?
This will take a bit of preparation to use, even if one is using MERP. Copying the maps to avoid having to flip between them and the key is a good idea. I would also recommend copying the Master Beast and Master NPC tables at least, with the Master Encounters table also strongly recommended, and keeping them handy as the player characters move throughout Mount Gundabad. A lot of copying, I know, but I know from long experience that a bit of prep work like that will keep the game flowing, especially in as massive a complex as Mount Gundabad.

Saviga and the Ashdurbuk, the "royalty" of Mount Gundabad

I need to note the art in this book. It's some of the best I've seen in the Middle-earth Roleplaying line.  The Angus McBride cover, with what I'm guessing is the Mouth of Sauron riding out from Mount Gundabad, is one of my favorites of his. The interior art by Darrell Midgette is also dynamic and evocative, for once matching the kind of excitement usually generated by McBride's covers. I mean, look at these orcs!


These are some of the most bad-ass orcs I've ever seen! These guys are the stuff of a hero's nightmare. Not only are they scary-looking, but look at the smiles on the faces of Saviga and her best fella, the Ashdurbuk. That's some creepy stuff there.

The region around Mount Gundabad just looks like the kind of place suitable for Orcs...or Dwarves. Though this book mentions a small population of Dwarves living here sometime in the First Age of Middle-earth, a more definitive account of Mount Gundabad's history was revealed some years after this book was printed. In The Peoples of Middle-earth, it is revealed that Mount Gundabad is the site where Durin the Deathless, the first and greatest of Dwarves, was created, making the place a sacred site for the Dwarves. As with so many Dwarven great places, it inevitably fell to evil and became infested with Orcs. Rugged mountains and a cold northern climate make for a forbidding place to live, but Dwarves and Orcs tend to live underground, sheltered away beneath the living stone. Terrain, climate, and natural fortifications combine to make a formidable bastion, whether for the Free Peoples, or Sauron's minions.

Impeccable maps of the northern Misty Mountains by Peter Fenlon, with Mount Gundabad to the north and a bit to the west.
Overall, this is one of my favorite MERP books. It's a solid, old-school adventure site, which could provide an entire campaign's worth of game play.