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.

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