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...

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