Sunday, July 29, 2012

Vikings on a sea of grass: Riders of Rohan

     "'You cannot enter here,' said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. 'Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!'
     The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter.
     'Old fool!' he said. 'Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!' And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.

     Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.
     And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin's sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last."

- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter IV: The Siege of Gondor

"Rohan had come at last." Such a simple sentence. Yet in all the books I've read in my life, few sentences have touched me on such a deep level. No matter how many times I've read The Lord of the Rings, I still find my throat growing tight and a surge of hope welling up in my heart everytime I reach this passage. In a literal sense, the cavalry rode to the rescue in the nick of time, just as everything seemed lost.

That's why ICE's Riders of Rohan, another in their Middle-earth Roleplaying (MERP) line, fired my imagination more than most of these sourcebooks. The Riders of Rohan, or Rohirrim, are actually a fairly unique creation on the part of Tolkien: a Norse-like society centered on horses. It may not be Tekumel or Skyrealms of Jorune, but it is a bit off the beaten path for the fantasy genre, at least at the time the Lord of the Rings was published.

This book differs from the last few sourcebooks I've discussed in an important way - the inhabitants of Rohan are mortal, and their realm is relatively new. As with most of ICE's Middle-earth books, the default time setting is about 1400 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. However, this presented a special problem for the authors of this book, because Rohan was not even in existence then, and wouldn't exist for close to a thousand years. The land which would become Rohan was still the northern part of Gondor.

However, the time period is a pivotal one in Middle-earth's history, as much of the continent has only recently been devastated by a plague that has weakened Gondor and depopulated much of Middle-earth. The ancestors of the future Riders of Rohan originated to the East, and migrated West, to just short of the eastern edge of the Misty Mountains. Centuries later they would migrate North, and even later they would move South where they would found Rohan and become the culture familiar to book readers and moviegoers.

By necessity, this sourcebook had to widen the usual scope of these books to accommodate the varied history of the Rohirrim. It's a bit of a shock for those used to sourcebooks for Elves and Ents to run across a culture more akin to something from our own history; consider how much any culture in the history of the real world has changed over the course of 1400 years. Consider also that this book traces the origins of the Rohirrim back 3000 years, and it's remarkable how coherent their culture remained. Even so, Tolkien's timelines suggest an interesting, ever-evolving culture that managed to retain its core essence - that of mounted warriors.

I'm once again impressed with how densely-packed with information the MERP staff made this book. They manage to cram in all of the information about the Rohirrim from Tolkien's timelines, as well as cultural overviews of the three main phases of their development as a culture: the Eothraim of their Eastern origins; the Eotheod of their emergence as a power in Eriador, the section of Middle-earth with which we're most familiar; and, finally, the Rohirrim. Not only that, but the MERP writers also included notes on the climate, flora, fauna, and weather of each region these peoples roamed. They even managed to crowbar in overviews of friendly and rival cultures of the Rohirrim, from Easterling horsemen and wagon-riders to Elves and Gondorians. And that's just the cultural and historical stuff.

Also included are a number of gaming ideas and aids. These include adventure ideas, with some tailored for each era. There are sources of possible conflict, events mentioned by Tolkien but never fully detailed, and sites where players can have their characters explore and interact with the setting. This includes a dragon's lair, which isn't a common thing in Middle-earth or in Middle-earth Roleplaying books. There is also a selection of biographies of people of note for each era, including the ones you expect: Theoden, Wormtongue, Eomer, and Eowyn.

Eomer and Eowyn...another instance of a picture that seems to show a slight pause in an argument.

Of course, if you've read any of my other posts about these books, you might have come to expect my mentioning the inclusion of charts and tables of military units, characters, and animals. Last but not nearly least, there are maps, from floorplans of buildings to city layouts to regional maps labeled with the locations of plants, animals, monsters, and people.

This book is 64 pages long. 64 pages. I haven't even mentioned the usual, tedious game infodump at the beginning of the book, or the numerous illustrations. It's amazing.

I've discussed how MERP books are jammed with info, but this particular book seems especially meaty. It details an entire culture over the course of 3000+ years. It can be used in its original setting, or plugged into another setting after the numbers are filed off (or not).

By the time this book appeared, ICE had hit its stride with the Middle-earth Roleplaying game line. There is little wasted space. It's meticulously put together, with an eye to accommodating both the Tolkien fans and gamers. The illustrations are well-done and relevant. For example, Liz Danforth does some yeoman's work in this book, with one of my favorite illustrations by her:

Pivotal kings from Rohirric history, illustration by Liz Danforth.

She manages to capture the "feel" of the setting right there. I particularly like how Theoden stands among his mighty ancestors, unclad for war as they are, looking drawn and slightly bedraggled, yet possessed of the same nobility. That picture alone would have made me a fan of Danforth's work; there are many others.

The late Angus McBride provides another MERP cover, this one especially dynamic. McBride also did work on sourcebooks of historical military units, primarily by Osprey Publishing, which are used by those who paint miniature figures for wargames, and other historical buffs. His attention to detail was second to none. I've mourned his passing more than once, and I'll do so again. He passed while still in the midst of producing fantastic artwork, still at the height of his powers. One of the obituaries I read noted that he had wished to do an illustrated edition of The Lord of the Rings, and boy, do I wish he'd had the chance to do it.

I've waxed nostalgic while discussing these Middle-earth Roleplaying books, inspired by the memories of times past that they trigger. In some sense books are especially good at casting one's mind back in time, as the reading of a book involves a melding of one's own experiences at the time of reading, as well as a certain kind of objective reality as the book itself, both the writing and the physical presence of it, don't change. Perhaps that's why I re-read certain books from time to time, to either transport myself back, or to somehow change an associated memory, ameliorate it if it was unpleasant. Perhaps...

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Ents of Fangorn: Finally, an elf-free forest.

Tolkien really seemed fascinated with forests. He portrays all of them as being inherently perilous, and all have a mystery to them. As mysterious as they all were, Fangorn was probably the most enigmatic of the forests he placed in Middle-earth. Well, second-most, behind the Old Forest near the Shire, which was Tom Bombadil's domain. Actually, though, both were the remnants of a truly ancient superforest that covered a big part of Middle-earth at one time, so in some respects they're very similar. I'll give the nod for being strange to the Old Forest, simply due to Bombadil's presence. But Fangorn is a close second, and is, in some ways, more dangerous, because there is no brightly-dressed gnome around to save the day. Regardless, Fangorn is yet another of Tolkien's haunted forests, and one inhabited by some of the stranger inhabitants of Middle-earth.

Ents of Fangorn gets right to the point with its title. I guess that's understandable. After all, any trek to Fangorn is going to have to involve meeting an Ent or two, or you'll be dealing with some disappointed players. It's inevitable. Doesn't matter that Ents are so rare as to have never been seen - or even heard of! - by most of the people of Middle-earth, even Elves. Players will want some facetime with Treebeard. So this book rightly discusses the Ents for a few pages, detailing their culture and a few notable Ents. The most notable is Treebeard, of course.

One thing that's always bothered me in my numerous times reading the book is how hard a time I had visualizing Treebeard, or any Ent, really. I mean, I got that they were anthropomorphic trees, or at least resembled such. It didn't help that I was not too keen on any of the pictures I saw of him. I was reading Lord of the Rings once every couple of years long before Peter Jackson's movies, so my main source for Treebeard pictures were in things like Tolkien calendars by the Brothers Hildebrandt.

From the 1976 J.R.R. Tolkien calendar by the Brothers Hildebrandt.

The Hildebrandts were phenomenal, of course, but some of their interpretations never quite clicked with me. Treebeard was one such. I think they were good about reading the source material. Technically they did a great job. But it just didn't look like Treebeard to me. Still, the only alternative I had back at that time was from Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings animated film.

That film has its fans, I know, and I can understand. It's ambitious. Nobody else tackled it as a feature until Peter Jackson. I was not a fan, really, because I never cottoned to Bakshi's penchant for rotoscoping, and I disliked some of the character designs - and Treebeard was one of those. It's not bad, but it's just not what I envisioned as I read the book. The closest to what I pictured in my own personal theater of the mind was the Treebeard of the Jackson films, and that came years later.

Took me a while, but I warmed up to this interpretation eventually. It came to really imprint itself on my mind's eye.

I'm spending a lot of time on Treebeard because he is Fangorn, literally. That's his original, given name. Whether he was named after the forest or it was named for him isn't entirely clear, but I like to think Fangorn, the Ent, came first. He is the eldest of the Ents, and my own interpretation of what Tolkien wrote is that he was the first Ent. That may not be true, but it's the impression I got. Regardless, he's the oldest of them living in Middle-earth at the time of the Lord of the Rings. He left one of the deepest impressions on me while reading the book. He seemed like someone's old grandpa, absent-minded, slow to speak and act, but also warm-hearted and paternal.

Ents of Fangorn covers its subject with the usual MERP structure: game infodump at the beginning, history of the area, overview of flora and fauna, and charts and tables of critters, military units, and even weather. As with the Mirkwood books, it covers the region surrounding the forest. Bandits and orcs in the mountains provide potential for helping out the Ents, if need be. There are also some great maps, as usual with MERP books. I said with Mirkwood that the map labeled with the territory of creatures and characters is perhaps the most useful thing provided, and that's true here, also.
Treebeard's dwelling, where he hosted Merry and Pippin.
A nice side cutaway view of another location in the forest of Fangorn.

 All in all, it's a nice package, with a bit of reading for those interested, and enough game material to provide for a good slate of adventuring.

The downside is, as with a lot of MERP books, the time setting. The default here is that the time period is roughly fourteen hundred years before the time of the Lord of the Rings.While the forest of Fangorn doesn't change much at all, the entire political and cultural landscape surrounding it in this book is vastly different from what readers and movie viewers are used to. No Riders of Rohan and no evil in Isengard are the biggest differences. Given Fangorn's nature and the nature of Ents, though, this isn't an insurmountable problem. Used as a game source for just the forest, it's useful in any time period. The surrounding region's adventure sites are easily adaptable for other times, too. Still, it's a bit of a pain to have to fiddle with such stuff when I've paid for a book that ostensibly was exactly what I was looking for.

I want to mention the art in this book. The cover above is, as per usual with most MERP books, by the late Angus McBride. I always thought he did great renditions of Hobbits. His depiction of Treebeard is actually really nice. He nails the eyes, which were always one of the most distinct things about Treebeard as described by Tolkien. Wellinghall, one of Treebeard's homes, looks like I imagined it. McBride was a masterful artist, and his loss is still felt.

The interior art is by Liz Danforth, whom I've mentioned before. I'm a bit torn about her art in this book. She does great work on characters like Tolwen, an Elf healer who lives at the edge of the forest:

Or Malion, a Gondorian knight who is a captain of a settlement in the region:

Her depictions of Ents are distinctive:

Not bad. In fact, very good. Not the way I envision them, but nice in and of themselves.

Where I feel conflicted is when it comes to her depictions of Fangorn itself:

These are actually lovely pictures. Very evocative. However...Fangorn is an old-growth forest, primordial, foreboding, essentially the same as it has been for millennia. These pictures seem more like what I imagine Lorien would look like: smooth, subtly cultivated, almost ethereal. So, yeah, great pictures, but they don't fit the subject. But I'm not complaining, really. Danforth's work is among the best in any roleplaying game book.

One last picture I wanted to mention is by Jim Holloway. Holloway is one of my favorite artists working in roleplaying games. His stuff is memorable and often humorous. He did a lot of work for Dungeons & Dragons, as well as Middle-earth Roleplaying during the era this book was published (1987). Humorous or serious, his work is always fun, and it was a nifty surprise when this picture showed up towards the end of the book:


It doesn't fit the tone of the book, but anything by Holloway is welcome.

 The more of these books I go back and go through, the more useful they all seem now. I also feel a sort of low-grade stun when I see that this book is 25 years old as I write this. Incredible. It doesn't seem that long ago that I bought it. I've gone on and on about the passage of time and the emotional journey I go through again as I look at these books. It's weird to think how even the most trivial thing, the most insignificant purchase, can become a signpost of one's life simply by continuing to exist for long enough.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

...and then...Mirkwood.

Dark and foreboding when we first see it in The Hobbit, Mirkwood looms large in Bilbo's tale. Drawing on old fairy tales and legends, Mirkwood is the quintessential haunted forest of modern fantasy. There is a mystery to it that lingers long after the book has been read. The blasted dead mountains and plains of Mordor may be hellish, but Mirkwood is the realm of nightmare. The north is a perilous fairy forest, with strange magics and forgotten secrets, while the south is the haunt of the Necromancer, whose grim tower is a jutting shadow above the forest canopy. It was inevitable that ICE would publish game books covering this vast forest for their Middle-earth Roleplaying game, and it makes sense that they divided it into two parts, since they are different realms.

 These are among the earlier MERP game books, and it shows. The organization is a bit of a mess, and the typeface is small and cramped. I give ICE credit; they tried to cram a lot of material into these books.
Northern Mirkwood
Northern Mirkwood:The Wood-Elves Realm covers a lot of territory, much of it familiar to readers of The Hobbit. It ranges from the Carrock in the river Anduin to the West, to the western Grey Mountains in the North, to the Long Lake and the Lonely Mountain in the East. It's a rich, varied region, and the book devotes essays on the flora and fauna, as well as the histories and cultures of the various peoples found in it, from the Elves of the eastern part of the forest, to the bear-folk of Beorn in the central part of the forest, to the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain and the Grey Mountains, to the Men of the Long Lake and the plains east of Mirkwood. And Dragons. Let's not forget the Dragons. Smaug was the greatest of them, but he wasn't the only one. This entire region within and without the forest is so densely-packed with interesting inhabitants and sites, that I can see it being the basis for entire game campaigns that last years.

Northern Mirkwood also contains the Halls of the Elven-king to the northeast. I've already taken a look at the book dedicated to the place. This book gives it more context, where it becomes something of an anchor against the encroaching dark that is permeating Mirkwood. However, as readers of The Hobbit know, that doesn't mean the Elven-king is a friendly face to those who travel through his realm, and his Halls are not a refuge. Those who stumble into the realm of the Wood-Elves won't be slain out-of-hand, but the best they can hope for if they persist in bothering them is to be locked in a cell until they give an accounting of themselves. A clean cell, to be sure, but a cell nonetheless; the Elves are inherently good folk, but they've been fighting a losing battle against evil for several thousand years, and they have not survived by welcoming strangers with open arms. A layout of the place is included, though it isn't as detailed as in the Halls of the Elven-King book, of course. Northern Mirkwood was published years before that book, so this would have been the lone sourcebook for the place for those who wanted it. However, the two together really help each flesh out the other. Without the Halls of the Elven-King book, the overview of the site in the Northern Mirkwood book is cursory and open for interpretation by the individual gamer or Tolkien enthusiast. That's not necessarily bad, as gamers often love tinkering with a setting, but someone reading this just to read it may find it lacking.

One level of the delvings within the Lonely Mountain.
 Erebor, or the Lonely Mountain, is also detailed in Northern Mirkwood. The place really deserves a book of its own, but I don't think ICE ever did one. To be fair, they did a couple of editions of their book for Moria, and there are Dwarven fortresses in books like The Grey Mountains, so it isn't like Dwarven digs are underrepresented by the game. Still, the Lonely Mountain is an iconic location for those who've read The Hobbit, and it rates its own separate book. Not to mention that a dragon's lair is a quintessential adventure locale not just in games, but in legend. You'd think that would make the Lonely Mountain the perfect subject for a whole game product of its own, and it was. But that boardgame doesn't seem like it'd be much use for a roleplaying game, and it was, and is, rare as hen's teeth. So the Lonely Mountain got lumped into Mirkwood. As with the Halls of the Elven-king, the Lonely Mountain is not detailed in any great depth, disappointingly so in this instance.To add insult to injury, mighty Smaug himself is barely mentioned.

This may be Smaug. Maybe not. They didn't bother to label the picture.
As usual with MERP books, there are a number of charts that list and detail everything from herbs and animals to military units in the region. These early MERP books were pretty strong in this regard. In fact, they almost redeem the entire book on their strength alone. These charts and lists include plants & herbs and their effects, legendary items and weapons of the area, a roster of dragons, a bibliography of books used as references for this one, adventure ideas, and background notes on possible player characters from the area.

Some of the maps are notable, too. ICE had some truly gorgeous maps made of Middle-earth. Hand-drawn and meticulously-detailed, I wish they'd been collected into one big poster-sized map that would likely be a good-sized mural. Maybe they did make one, but I never saw it. All I ever saw were the sections done for the various sourcebooks, and altogether those don't cover all of Middle-earth. Still, what is included is still pretty cool. In addition, they include a smaller, black and white version for the gamemaster's use, which is labeled with where plants, animals, peoples, and creatures can be found. It's a really simple idea, but damned handy. Some of the maps inside the book are unspectacular, but the ones that are really make up for those.

Let's not forget the giant talking spiders.
Southern Mirkwood: Haunt of the Necromancer covers a part of the forest that is only seen from a distance in the narrative. If Northern Mirkwood is shadowed and filled with mystery, Southern Mirkwood is even more gloom-filled. Dol Guldur, or "Hill of Sorcery," the sinister fortress of the Necromancer, rises up from amongst the trees of the southwestern part of the forest on Amon Lanc, the "Naked Hill."

The Necromancer was Sauron in disguise, as was revealed sometime during the events of The Hobbit, but that "secret" seems like it should have been blindingly obvious. If this was a spoiler to you, then welcome to Earth.
Southern Mirkwood; Dol Guldur, the haunt of the Necromancer, is the bare spot in the southwest part of the forest.
Let's play along and pretend like Sauron's charade as the Necromancer actually fooled anyone. Even given that, his presence was troubling and dangerous, spooking some of the most powerful people in Middle-earth enough for them to get together and brainstorm about what to do. Saruman, Galadriel, Elrond, and Gandalf himself gathered to worry about the Necromancer and eventually kick him out of Dol Guldur. It's not clear how that was done, but I'm sure it would've made a good story.
Topographical map of Dol Guldur to the left.
In the meantime, though, his presence caused Mirkwood to take on its foreboding aspect, causing it to be renamed - it had been known as Greenwood the Great. The whole forest took on a gloomy aspect, but it's reasonable to assume that Southern Mirkwood was especially afflicted, especially as one approached Dol Guldur.

Pants are optional among the forces of the Necromancer, apparently.
As Northern Mirkwood did, Southern Mirkwood covers a good chunk of the region around the forest. This southern region draws close to Mordor itself, the evil wasteland that was the focus of so much of Middle-earth's troubles in the time of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Elves are few and far between in this part of the forest, and Orcs, Trolls, and evil Men abound, given that Dol Guldur became a bastion for evil that sent out armies to attack both the Elves of Northern Mirkwood and Lorien. Horsemen and nomadic tribes inhabit the plains to the East, and are known to be hostile. The Brown Lands lie to the southwest, and were laid waste by Sauron thousands of years before. So Southern Mirkwood is a much bleaker place than the northern half of the forest.

This is the book's interpretation of Radagast.
Interestingly, on the western edge of the forest, and a bit to the north of Dol Guldur, is Rhosgobel, the home to Radagast the Brown. Radagast is a wizard, one of the handful sent to Middle-earth to help fight evil. he seems a good sort, but is more interested in birds and animals than people, whether they be Men, Elves, Dwarves, or Hobbits. He makes a brief appearance in The Lord of the Rings, and Saruman sneeringly refers to him as "Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool!" in conversation with Gandalf. Still, he's a wizard, and that means something. It's interesting that Tolkien located him so near to where the Necromancer lived. It's pretty bad-ass that he apparently did so absentmindedly, yet still must have been a bit of a deterrence. I imagine his place would make for a good refuge for adventurers skulking around the Necromancer's stomping grounds.

As with Northern Mirkwood, people, places, and things are given a brief but substantive pass, placing everything in a fairly easy-to-grasp context for gamers and Tolkien fans. There are more nifty maps, as in the other book, which are really useful.

The biggest single chunk of the book deals, unsurprisingly, with Dol Guldur, and this is one of the only MERP books in which players can have their characters actually meet the Dark Lord face-to-face. It's not too likely, but it can happen. Even if it does happen, player characters are pretty much done for. Even in a weakened state, without his Ring, Sauron is no pantywaist.
I have to confess I find it somewhat silly that Sauron has a throne in the dead center of an eye-shaped room.
Dol Guldur itself is an evil fortress in the classic mold. Traps, monsters, troops, legendary items, and a generally evil atmosphere will be pretty familiar stuff to gamers used to dungeoncrawls. The maps for the place seem odd to me, though, because I have a hard time visualizing exactly what the hell it's supposed to look like from outside. I guess it's mostly inside Amon Lanc in this version. For some reason I always pictured Dol Guldur as a fortress on Amon Lanc, not in it, with dungeons and dark pits delved into the hill beneath the fortress. But, that's my own bag.

Beyond all that, Southern Mirkwood contains a few other minor sites, including a stronghold of Gondor and the home of a "seer." There are adventure and character ideas that are of some interest, and it's interesting to me that this was a feature of early MERP books that was either dropped or made less prominent in later books.

One big hit against both these books is the sizable game info-dump at the front of each. There is a solid block of relatively impenetrable gamespeak that would have to turn off the casual reader. Most MERP books are similarly afflicted, but it seems especially egregious to me in these. Something like six pages or more need to be plowed through to get to the true start of the book proper. It seems senseless to me to do that. Putting it all in the back of the book with the other game statistics seems like it would've made the books more accessible to non-gamers. But, this was almost thirty years ago, so the horse is long out of the barn.

Overall, though, these are pretty decent books. They're especially useful for a gamer, and could be used as a forest in any fantasy roleplaying setting once the serial numbers are filed off. The casual reader and non-gamer might find a bit of interest in the history and cultural essays in the books, though a good bit of it was extrapolated and made up whole cloth, rather than drawn directly from Tolkien's work.

These books are really evocative of nostalgia for me, as are many of the books I'll be discussing here. Long before the internet and its plethora of wikis and dedicated sites, there were only a handful of resources for anyone wanting more info about Middle-earth. So books like these came along through which I could pore, endlessly, usually late at night. There was no illusionary hum of activity that comes from Google searches and site-scrolling. It was a solitary pursuit. This is no "gosh things were so much better then" essay. It wasn't better. Different. Simpler. Quieter, after a fashion. But not better. Today, I could find pages worth of material about any Middle-earth region I care to know about, and much of it would be drawn straight from some Tolkienian source which may not have been unearthed yet years ago.

More melancholy? Yes, yes, like an old friend coming 'round as the evening draws down. Leafing through these books takes me back to a simpler time. Simpler for me then, of course, before time had begun to speed up for me, before the slow, stately, deep ringing of the bell that is the passing of the years began to take on the strident urgency of a fire alarm. These books, like all things we've held onto for decades, seem like faulty time travel devices, casting us back to an earlier age, but cruelly depriving us of the chance to do anything again, make our bad choices right, say the things we needed to have said then. This mood upon me now seems appropriate, though, because so much of Tolkien's Middle-earth narrative hangs upon the decisions of the past, and how they force the river of time to flow in ways those who made those decisions could not have guessed.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Fortresses of Middle-earth: Halls of the Elven-King...

Black butterflies and drunken elves. Those are two things that stuck out to me when I first read The Hobbit. Magical streams that cause deep sleep, paths that can't be strayed from, black squirrels, white deer, black stags...Mirkwood dominated the book in my mind.

There's something mysterious about even the most familiar patch of woods. It's easy to believe something strange and unknown lies within them, waiting to discover or be discovered. Throughout Tolkien's works, he presents a number of different woodlands, each possessed of its own secrets. The most mysterious of them all was Mirkwood.

Mirkwood is a darker counterpart to Lorien, with the Elven-King's realm an Unseelie Court to the Seelie ruled by Galadriel. King Thranduil of Mirkwood held sway over a wood haunted by giant spiders and a spooky atmosphere, quite unlike the starlit forests of Lorien.

Thranduil may have been the Elven-King in Northern Mirkwood, but his main stronghold was an underground fortress near the forest's edge. This fortress harkens back to the faerie mounds of legend, and is a labyrinthine place. This is where the dwarves were imprisoned by the elves, and from which Bilbo freed them after lurking about the place for who-knows-how-long, using his ring of invisibility. It's a clean, dry, civilized place, but still one with an otherworldly tinge to it, and sinister if one is not there as a guest, but rather as a prisoner. It's worth noting that Thranduil was the father of Legolas, meaning that Legolas was a prince and heir to the kingdom of northern Mirkwood.

Unlike Rivendell, the Halls of the Elven-King are an obvious site for a game adventure. The type of adventure is already spelled out for you in The Hobbit: infiltration, spying, and escape. The elves of Mirkwood, while not evil, are much more suspicious of strangers, and less likely to welcome anyone into their home.

This might be an interesting read for a non-gamer. The conceit for the description of the place is that it's a tale being told by a merchant who had dealings with the elves. Still, a lot of it is floorplans and descriptions of rooms that might wear thin after a while. The history of the place is probably more generally accessible, and like any of the Middle-earth Roleplaying books from ICE, it tries to cover several thousand years in only a few pages. Given the immortality of elves, this isn't as tough as it might seem; for a big example, there were only two kings in that time period, one of them the very one who held Thorin and Company prisoner in The Hobbit. It's a thin book, too, to boot, with a lot of maps and a few illustrations.

 The non-map illustrations have a faux-Bayeux Tapestry look to them. This adds to the alien atmosphere of the place, and gives the book a slight historical "feel" that is unlike other MERP books.

The MERP line extrapolates a lot of stuff out of necessity; a game book often needs to detail elements of the world that Tolkien either never addressed, or only touched upon. Sometimes the writers of the MERP books went a little astray from what seems "Tolkienian," but in this book they managed to do a decent job. Tree-forts grown into existence is a good example.

This is one of the better-done MERP adventure site books. With more substance, like a concentration on Middle-earth history, and more art rather than floorplans, this could have been a rainy-day book to leaf through. As it is, it's too flimsy for that, but it is good for those who might want to plug it into a fantasy game setting, Middle-earth or not.

Again, a map that has to be shown in two parts. Part the first...
...and part the second.

There's something dreamy about this book. Much of this has to do with the art, but the narrative description and extensive historical notes also contributes to it. It's a decent companion piece or quick reference for The Hobbit, though it's obviously not canon. ICE did a couple of books detailing Mirkwood itself, divided into Northern and Southern sections, so this one is a good companion for those.

Maybe the dreaminess has more to do with The Hobbit itself than with this book. That's entirely possible. I've read The Hobbit more times than I can remember, and I may well be projecting the mood I felt while reading that book onto this game book. I know that the entire adventure in Mirkwood always had a dreamlike quality to it, more so than almost anything else Tolkien wrote. I'm still struck by the image of Bilbo climbing out of the gloom and above the canopy of Mirkwood, seeing the black butterflies flying above the forest in the sunlight. It's a beautiful moment. I'm also struck by the image of elves drinking until they fall asleep, with Bilbo slipping around them as he works to engineer the escape of the dwarves. It's all a late-night fairytale.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Summer depths.

Stepping out into the fetid swamp this place has become, under a waning Moon still bright as it slides across the sky, I hear the gulping belch of frogs across the way. The field that stretches away on the other side of the road now has a mystery to it, with a mist rising up from it like the moors in Basil Rathbone's Hound of the Baskervilles. High weeds and bushes are silhouettes of creatures clawing their way up from the ground, frozen in poses of final escape. There is a thick, mild stench of rotting plants and cordite, a mix of smells that comes from an endless stretch of 90-degree-plus days and the fireworks of the Fourth of July. The air is heavy. The night is deep.

Some thoughts on the running of a Fourth Age Middle Earth game campaign.

This is an oldy but a goody. Given that I've been reviewing Middle-earth game books, this seemed like as good a time to post this again as any, in case anyone who's a gamer was passing by and had a hankering to read a bit about Middle-earth being used as a setting for a roleplaying game. Every so often I dust it off and post it somewhere, because it took a bit of effort and this is my blog so whatever.

This post may simply make the eyes of non-roleplaying-gamers glaze over, but a fan of Tolkien and his work may well find something of interest here.

A Fourth Age Middle-earth campaign is a great way to use Tolkien's world as a game setting without having to worry about, or change, canon. Tolkien himself provides a lot of interesting detail about his world after the time of the Lord of the Rings, detail that provides a wealth of campaign hooks and ideas. I'll quote some of this material to show how relevant it is to a gamemaster wanting to run a campaign in Middle-earth.

"For though Sauron had passed, the hatreds and evils that he bred had not died, and the King of the West had many enemies to subdue before the White Tree could grow in peace. And wherever King Elessar went with war King Eomer went with him; and beyond the Sea of Rhun and on the far fields of the South the thunder of the cavalry of the Mark was heard, and the White Horse upon Green flew in many winds until Eomer grew old." - The Return of the King, Apendix A, part II, The House of Eorl

This paragraph sets the premise for decades of Fourth Age adventure. It doesn't involve just Men, either. Even though Tolkien makes much of how the Fourth Age is a time of fading for all the peoples of Middle-earth except Men, it is apparent that many of the other races are actually becoming much more gregarious in the Fourth Age. Here are some examples:

"After the fall of Sauron, Gimli brought south a part of the Dwarf-folk of Erebor, and he became Lord of the Glittering Caves. He and his people did great works in Gondor and Rohan. For Minas Tirith they forged gates of mithril and steel to replace those broken by the Witch-king. Legolas his friend brought south Elves out of Greenwood, and they dwelt in Ithilien, and it became once again the fairest country in all the westlands." - The Return of the King, Appendix A, part III, Durin's Folk

"Three times Lorien had been assailed from Dol Guldur, but besides the valour of the elven people of that land, the power that dwelt there was too great for any to overcome, unless Sauron had come there himself. Though grievous harm was done to the fair woods on the borders, the assaults were driven back; and when the Shadow had passed, Celeborn came forth and led the host of Lorien over Anduin in many boats. They took Dol Guldur, and Galadriel threw down its walls and laid bare its pits, and the forest was cleansed.

In the North also there had been war and evil. The realm of Thranduil was invaded, and there was long battle under the trees and great ruin of fire; but in the end Thranduil had the victory. And on the day of the New Year of the Elves, Celeborn and Thranduil met in the midst of the forest; and they renamed Mirkwood Eryn Lasgalen, The Wood of Greenleaves. Thranduil took all the northern region as far as the mountains that rise in the forest for his realm; and Celeborn took all the southern wood below the Narrows, and named it East Lorien; all the wide forest between was given to the Beornings and the Woodmen. But after the passing of Galadriel in a few years Celeborn grew weary of his realm and went to Imladris to dwell with the sons of Elrond. In the Greenwood the Silvan Elves remained untroubled, but in Lorien there lingered sadly only a few of its former people, and there was no longer light or song in Caras Galadon." - The Return of the King, Appendix B, The Tale of Years

In addition, it seems that the Fourth Age is a time of renewal and rebuilding. A few brief but significant passages suggest that Elessar seeks to reinvigorate the entire northwestern part of Middle-earth, something which will take a number of hardy individuals performing countless heroic deeds. Here are some examples:

"King Elessar rides north, and dwells for a while by Lake Evendim."
[Fourth Age 14] - The Return of the King, Appendix B, The Tale of Years

"And Aragorn gave to Faramir Ithilien to be his princedom, and bade him dwell in the hills of Emyn Arnen within sight of the City. 'For,' said he, 'Minas Ithil in Morgul Vale shall be utterly destroyed, and though it may in time to come be made clean, no man may dwell there for many long years.'" - The Return of the King, Book VI, Chapter V: The Steward and the King

As simple as these passages seem, the actual doing of the deeds required to accomplish them is rather difficult. Elessar not only travels to, but actually lives at Annuminas for a while. Seeing that the city was a ruin at the end of the Third Age, abandoned for centuries, and surrounded by wilderness, this implies an enormous effort was made by Gondor. It seems clear that Annuminas is restored, and becomes the chief city of the northern kingdom. It is not difficult to picture that King Elessar also rebuilt Fornost Erain and Tharbad. It is also highly likely, even though unmentioned, that Osgiliath was cleared and rebuilt; given Elessar's desire to rebuild the Dunedain kingdoms, this seems a natural assumption to make.

In addition, the destruction of Minas Ithil, an entire fortress-city the size of Minas Tirith (at least), held by the chief of the Nazgul for centuries and used as a base for a large part of the strength of Mordor, is a task which would have to involve thousands of troops. This is especially true if the city was used as a rallying point and base for some of the remnants of Sauron's armies. It is not hard to imagine that the interior of the city is filled with all manner of evil things - Men, beasts, traps, and a generally unwholesome atmosphere. Very much like a D&D adventure. And speaking of D&D adventures...

"Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day." - The Two Towers, Book III, Chapter V: The White Rider

With the Balrog defeated, Sauron gone, and a huge part of the strength of the orcs in the region destroyed, it is quite likely that the Dwarves would at least begin to explore and clean out Moria. This would provide the archetypal dungeon adventure. Especially given that tantalizing glimpse Gandalf gives into a world of darkness and horror far beneath even where the Kings of the Dwarves once dwelled.

Here are a few random, and final, thoughts about possibilities for Fourth Age campaigns:

Mirkwood (renamed Eryn Lasgalen) and Ithilien would likely also remain havens for a time for evil creatures, such as spiders and orcs, until the Elves, woodmen, and Beornings finally rid the forest of them. Shelob still dwells near Cirth Ungol, and the Watcher in the Water still haunts the lake near the west gate of Moria.

Veterans of Celeborn's taking of Dol Guldur would be good candidates for duty in Mordor itself, or any place wherein darkness still holds sway.

There are at least two great Elves still unaccounted for in the 4th Age: Daeron and Maglor. Perhaps one or the other is encountered in the East, or perhaps one or the other returns to western Middle-earth, finally weary of wandering, their pain and sorrow driving them towards the west at last. Perhaps one of them could take up residence in fading Lorien, or even in Rivendell for a time, or take up the kingship of East Lorien once Celeborn leaves.

All in all, Middle-earth of the Fourth Age is a vital, interesting setting. The gloom of Sauron’s presence has been replaced by an atmosphere of beginnings, but remnants of the Shadow and the things it wrought are still in Middle-earth, awaiting heroes to root them out and vanquish them. Just because the One Ring and its master are gone doesn’t mean their legacy has vanished.

The underlying truth.

“So what’s the story about?”
            “It’s about love and honor. It’s about faith and integrity and eternity.”
            “It’s about a girl.”
            “It’s about a girl.”
            “It’s always about a girl.”

In which I get Byronic on this here blog.

First, I’m not a writer. Or so I’ve been told. But I’ll try to tell you a story that’ll make you feel something. I want you to know what little I know or have discovered about love and honor and eternity. You probably already know about most of that yourself, being a person with a head on your shoulders and some time here on the Earth. But if you’re like me, it helps to know someone else out there has been through similar stuff. Even if that someone else isn’t any smarter than you.

I love the stars. I take comfort from them. There is nothing better than a sky full of bright stars, especially on a cold winter’s night or above the ocean. They hang above, brilliant and steady, slowly wheeling around the sky, and walk with you unchanging. I’ve lain out under them at times, flat on my back, looking straight up, and, y’know, it can suddenly seem like I’m falling forever and always upward into them, rushing through the heavens, a little speck of existence flying into the great nothingness of the sky.
Sometimes I feel like I’m all alone except for the stars. They seem like friends to me, constant and never-changing. Because when you’re lonely, the loneliness can play tricks on you, or make you turn to unloving (I meant unliving, but I’ll leave it) things for companionship.
I glide across the fields of the night, starlight silvering the grass, the darkness making everything strange and fay, and I fly up to the Moon and beyond, the summer wind staying with me as a warm blanket. The stars are blue-white fireflies in the backyard of the night, winking and slowly, slowly flying to where they are going, drowsy and lazy. The stars wash over me forever and ever…