Saturday, June 16, 2012

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.

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