Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Cursed Tombs and Hobbit Villagers: Bree and the Barrow-Downs

Fog on the Barrow-downs was, for the longest time, one of my favorite chapters of The Lord of the Rings. The title itself is evocative, setting a mood that is ominous, like a classic black and white horror movie. The story has, by that time, seen the Hobbits descend into a strange, dark world just beyond the borders of their beloved Shire. The Old Forest was dangerous yet whimsical, and Tom Bombadil's house a haven in it. Yet just beyond it is another shadowy land, one they are warned not to linger in. With good reason; the Barrow-downs are truly haunted, with dark spirits that desecrate the resting places of a once-great folk.

Later, after adventures amongst the downs, the Hobbits finally make it to Bree. Bree is an interesting spot on Tolkien's map, a small town that is apparently a crossroads on once-great thoroughfares. Now, few beyond Bree-land visit, except for adventurous Shire Hobbits (which is a vanishingly rare phenomenon), some closed-mouthed Dwarves traveling on mysterious business, and a few furtive Men on ominous errands. Even the occasional Wizard makes a stop there as he moves about Middle-earth. It's a rustically cosmopolitan place.

This Middle-earth Roleplaying adventure actually captures a lot of this. The cover uses an image from the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings film. I've been critical of that film, but there is some striking imagery in it. This cover shows one of those images, of Bree huddled under Bree Hill under a darkling sky. It sets the mood for a place that is a bit of light in a vast gloom.

The book gives a brief history of the area, which stretches back a surprisingly long way. Bree-land was never a pivotal place, so while much history passed it by, it never took center stage. That's a bit surprising, given that it's situated on the border between Arthedain and Cardolan, and is a crossroads, where the North-South Road - known to most in the area of Bree-land as the Greenway - and the Great East Road meet. By the time of The Hobbit, both roads were little-used outside where they ran through the Shire and Bree-land. The kingdoms that had built and used them were long gone.

There is a rundown of Bree itself, with some of the major buildings listed and detailed, as well as brief descriptions of the other villages in Bree-land: Archet, Combe, and Staddle. They're tiny, and are something like suburbs of Bree.
An overhead map of Bree and its environs.

Archet, Combe, and Staddle

There is a discussion of the local politics, economy, agriculture, and festivals. Overall, it's a bucolic place, not too unlike the Shire, though its people, including the Hobbits, are less naive than their neighbors. It's a clue to the importance of the Rangers to the safety of the Shire that Bree has built defenses and fields a town guard to protect itself. It's another indication of just how dangerous the outer world is, even within a short trip beyond the borders of the Shire.

A more northerly look at Bree-land and its neighbor, the Shire.
Southerly view of the region surrounding Bree-land.

Bree and Bree-land wouldn't seem terribly interesting as an adventure site, had readers of The Lord of the Rings not already followed along as Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin had already faced quite a bit of danger just in getting there. Tolkien unintentionally provided a really good introduction to the whole area as the basis for adventure gaming.

A lot of fantasy roleplaying games have a long tradition of using villages as the "home bases" for adventurers who strike out into the wild. These villages serve as rest stops, resupply areas, recruitment centers, and motivating factors for further adventures. All have at least one inn, where adventure hooks, gossip, and rumors float about, and mysterious strangers sit in corners waiting to be spoken to. They exist near wild places and crumbling ruins, where it is rumored that all manner of danger exists. Bree is the prototypical roleplaying game village.
A town guard can be found in just about any fantasy roleplaying game. Their main function is to bedevil the characters that belong to the players.

True to form, beyond Bree is a place rife with danger and adventure: the Barrow-downs. These ancient burial mounds are filled with treasure, but also with undead. In addition, the Old Forest of Tom Bombadil lies to the west and south. To the east is Weathertop and the lost land of Rhudaur, and, of course, Elves live there.

The book provides a number of characters for the players to interact with in Bree and Bree-land, and beyond. There is a band of Dunlendings holed up in an old fortress nearby, some bandits, scattered trolls and wolves, and, of course, down in the Barrow-downs are Barrow-wights.

Quite a few barrows are detailed. These resemble the kinds of "dungeons" made famous in adventures for Dungeons & Dragons, though these barrows are much less complex. In fact, even the most elaborate barrows are a handful of rooms, and most are a single space. There are illustrations and maps that give a good indication of what the barrows look like within and without. A good bit of treasure lies within the Barrow-downs, but it can be deadly to get to and to keep, as seen in The Lord of the Rings.

A description of the Barrow-downs from the book.

The barrow of Ostoher, the last king of Cardolan. Ostoher is on the cover of Lost Realm of Cardolan, discussed in an earlier entry in this blog.

This volume in the Middle-earth Roleplaying line by Iron Crown Enterprise is not likely to appeal too much to non-gamers. There is quite a bit of game-specific material that makes it really useful at the game table, but not as a good read. There are charts of statistics for characters and monsters, and a lot of specifically-detailed treasure - these all have effects in game terms that might look like gibberish to the casual reader. So I can't recommend it as a late-night or rainy-day read. The maps, though, are gorgeous, especially the regional maps by Peter Fenlon.

Bree and the Barrow-downs is a MERP book that actually is better than I thought it was before starting this series of blog posts. Closer examination shows it to be much more useful than I originally thought. I was put off by the time-setting, which is about 1300 years before the time of The Hobbit. The Prancing Pony is not here, though a similar inn, the King's Rest, is. Still, it's easy enough to just rename the inn and have Barliman Butterbur own it. The Barrow-downs are essentially timeless, and the surrounding lands don't change much. So, this makes for a good beginning area for playing a game set in Middle-earth. It's actually pretty fun.

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