Sunday, September 30, 2012

Southeast and under: Erech and the Paths of the Dead

They are the shades of the restless dead forever waiting in the endless dark, the silent passages beneath mountains their prison until they uphold a pledge broken long ago. They are the ghostly memories of a cursed folk, fated to extinction by an act of betrayal. They are the Oathbreakers, the Dead Men of Dunharrow.

From Angmar, I'll now leap to the southeast, to Rohan again, and the mountains upon which the capital city of the Rohirrim, Edoras, is anchored. Under the mountains lie subterranean passages into Gondor itself: the Paths of the Dead. The Paths pass beneath the Ered Nimrais, the White Mountains, which lie between Rohan and Gondor, and contain the tombs and forgotten cities of a mountain folk culture that is, by the time of Aragorn's passage through the Paths, a distant memory. These folk haunt the region, giving it a foreboding air. It's an interesting, and spooky, realm, right in the heart of the lands of the Free People of Middle-earth.

More gorgeous maps by Peter Fenlon.
On the southern side of the White Mountains is the Hill of Erech.

A huge stone, called the Stone of Erech, or the Black Stone, taller than a Man, is set in place there. In this Middle-earth Roleplaying book, it's portrayed as something like a limited-power palantir, though there isn't anything from Tolkien that I recall reading to indicate this to be so. It's not a bad extrapolation, though, given that it's apparently spherical - or at least, that's how I always pictured it when reading The Lord of the Rings - and held in high esteem by the Dunedain, much as the palantiri were. After all, the Black Stone was hauled from Numenor when that land was destroyed, which had to be a tough undertaking, given the limited freight-hauling capacity I would assume the Faithful Dunedain had when they fled the sinking of that island. Whatever properties the Stone of Erech possessed, it was considered holy enough for powerful oaths to be sworn upon it, most importantly the Oath sworn by the King of the Mountain, swearing that the Men of the Mountains would aid Gondor at need. The Men of the Mountains broke that oath when called to help during the War of the Last Alliance. They were cursed even in death to wait until called again. It took over 3000 years for that call to come, when Aragorn came to claim his heritage in the South.

That's a lot of history for an area of Middle-earth that isn't focused on too much in The Lord of the Rings, and only rates treatment in a 40-page MERP book. Still, it's a pivotal place in the narrative, setting up Aragorn's deus ex machina later on. Plus, in terms of a roleplaying game, Erech and the Paths of the Dead is almost perfect for a game about adventurers looking for danger and treasure, because there is plenty of both to be had here, what with underground passages full of kingly tombs and long-abandoned cities running for miles under a mountain range.

This book gives an overview of the region, from the valley in the northern side of the White Mountains Rohan used as a refuge, where the Dark Door into the Paths of Dead let into the haunted underworld, to the Hill of Erech and its surroundings, including a town and fortress, and the Morthond River that leads into Gondor.

It's actually a really good roleplaying setting, with adventure sites readily accessible and just waiting to be delved into. I mean, it's a whole civilization of the dead, just sitting there, waiting for adventurers to blunder in and get themselves killed or scared half to death.
Evil folk skulking about and doing their evil thing.

Of course, as with most MERP books, Iron Crown Enterprises goes beyond the most obvious adventure site. It covers the mountains and valleys also, providing a rundown of fauna and flora, as well as intelligent races like Men and Elves, maybe a few Dwarves, as well as Trolls. It seems incredibly unlikely that Orcs would be in the area, given that this is smack-dab in the middle of a region long settled by Gondor, and later held by both it and Rohan. Still, it's possible, I suppose, especially after Saruman's fall to evil, that Orcs could be skulking around the area, though not in great numbers.

Orcs do show up on the inevitable Master Encounter chart, which also accompanies the equally inevitable slate of charts that are so much a part of MERP: Master Beast Chart, Master N(on)P(layer)C(haracter) Chart, and the Master Military Chart.

There is a town - there's always a town - called Sarn Erech, and a fortress called Morthondost, where the characters belonging to the players can rest up, get equipped, and engage in political intrigue, if so inclined. It's not likely that much swordplay will occur in any of these more settled places, but they are positioned so as to give a good jumping-off point for forays into and under the mountains. It's a good, solid base of operations and living area for player characters, though not terribly unique, as these things go. It's nicely integrated into the setting, though, and doesn't seem simply tacked on.

The real draw here are the Paths of the Dead themselves. As you might guess, they're teeming with undead, from ghouls (analogous to zombies in most other roleplaying games) to ghosts (the terrifying, though incorporeal, undead that seemed to make up the bulk of the Dead Tolkien wrote about). In addition, there are some nifty extrapolations of "Pukel-men," the stone-carved figures found in Rohan and other places lived in by Wood-woses and Dunlendings. Here, they are tomb and temple guardians, some more able than others to back up their foreboding appearances. There are also other stone carvings, which seem largely like near-to-abstract religious or cultural designs.
Some may just be symbolic decoration...
...or, perhaps, warning signs.

The Paths are fraught with dangers, and players may end up losing quite a few characters here. That seems fine to me.

The only complication here is the nature of the Paths of the Dead, and how it relates to using the site in other time periods. Specifically, after Aragorn's passage and the final fulfilling of the Oath that the Dead broke so long ago, the implication is, obviously, that the Paths are finally left unhaunted in the Fourth Age. It makes for a nice narrative bow on the end of the tale of the Dead Men, but it leaves the place a bit empty for the purposes of adventurers. One could rationalize that some of the Dead remain, perhaps those who once again refused the fulfilling of their Oath - after all, when Aragorn arrives, Gondor teeters on the brink of annihilation. Even a ghost might quail at the thought of having crossed Sauron in his final victory. One could also suppose that some tattered remnant of the Dark Lord's forces fled into the Paths as a final refuge, somehow slipping in or fighting their way into the passages. It's unlikely, but possible.

This is another Middle-earth Roleplaying book that has benefited from the closer look I've given it due to this blog project. It had always seemed a bit bland to me, too similar to many other such game books, whether for something like Dungeons & Dragons or MERP itself. However, my closer look this time reveals a moodier, almost Gothic feel to the place, a haunted valley in the midst of civilization, an ancient curse that lingers dimly, waiting to be lifted. The climate described in the book seems appropriate - rainy and chilly, with storms wracking the mountains. If Hammer Films made a Middle-earth movie, this is where it would be set.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Darkness in the North: Angmar, Land of the Witch-King

I've written of lost and forgotten kingdoms in Middle-earth, the lands they once occupied empty, with once mighty fortresses and elegant cities now rubble and ruin. Now, I'll turn to the reason behind their demise: Angmar.

Two books deal with this realm, Angmar: Land of the Witch-King,

and Empire of the Witch-King.

The latter is a revision and expansion of the former.

Angmar was an empire created with one purpose: the destruction of what remained of the northern kingdom of Arnor. While Gondor in the South prospered, Arnor, the northern realm of the Dunedain, had already fragmented into three lesser kingdoms due to the quarreling heirs of King Earendur. These three kingdoms were named Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur. For a few centuries they existed thus, nominally allied, often arguing, sometimes warring amongst themselves. They slowly but steadily declined due to this divisiveness. Eventually, Sauron decided to hasten their collective ends, and sent the greatest of his lieutenants, the Witch-King, to accomplish this mission. Slowly, and with the implacability only possible in one who is immortal, the Witch-King of Angmar worked for centuries to destroy what was left of the Dunedain in the North.

Rhudaur was subverted and became a vassal of the Witch-King. Cardolan, never as powerful as Arthedain, bore much of the brunt of Rhudaur's and Angmar's evil, eventually falling, with the Elves intervening to save Arthedain and push Angmar's forces back. Arthedain hung on for centuries, finally falling to Angmar about a thousand years before the time of Bilbo Baggins. The forces of Gondor and the Elves arrived only in time to demolish Angmar once and for all. But, Angmar had accomplished its purpose. The Witch-King fled, fated never to fall to the hand of a living man.
The Witch-King, posing dramatically.

There isn't much known about Angmar itself, as Tolkien didn't describe it too greatly. The Witch-King's forces were Orcs and Men, and, presumably, Trolls and assorted other dark creatures, maybe even Dragons, given Angmar's relative proximity to the Withered Heath, a stomping ground for Dragons. That might be pushing it, though. Angmar's location suggests it to be a cold, relatively barren land. Angmar had to have some resources and farming capability to support the Witch-King's armies, though it may have benefited greatly in terms of resources from the addition of Rhudaur to its empire. Angmar did have a capital, Carn Dum, which I would assume was a fortress-city. Beyond that, everything else is a guess.

So, all that is why Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) had a lot of leeway when detailing Angmar for its Middle-earth Roleplaying sourcebooks Angmar: Land of the Witch-King, and the later, revised and expanded Empire of the Witch-King. In addition, Angmar is an isolated, out-of the-way place, not really bordering any of the well-known places in Middle-earth, and tucked away in a stretch of history not that well-known to the average fan of Middle-earth. That makes these books easily usable in other games or settings as a plug-and-play evil fantasy empire. As Middle-earth resources, there isn't a lot here for anyone looking for direct-from-Tolkien info, but they're pretty meaty as generic game books.

Both books have a lot of information regarding the terrain, weather, flora, and fauna of the region. Empire of the Witch-King, the later and larger book, expands, naturally enough, on this information greatly, where Angmar: Land of the Witch-King concentrates more on fortresses and settlements. Empire of the Witch-King has this material, too, and even expands on it with cultural and military information.

Given its nature and reason for existing, a lot of military detail is given for Angmar. Unit composition, siege engines, bases, and chain of command are detailed. Related to this is a discussion of religion in Angmar. Tolkien rarely mentioned any kind of religion in his Middle-earth works, with a few oblique references in The Silmarillion to dark rituals among the corrupted Dunedain of Westernesse. Here, the MERP writers and designers construct a cult for the Dark Lord himself, which helps give structure and fervency to the Witch-King's followers. The impression is that Angmar's military is the backbone of Angmar's society, with everything focused on it.
Assorted ne'er-do-wells in the forces of the Witch-King.
And orcs. There are always orcs.

The writers of these books also devise some interesting encounters in Angmar for the characters belonging to players to encounter. There are various settlements and fortresses, of course, from human towns to Orcish villages. I was particularly interested in a partially subterranean Orc village, which is reminiscent of a Hobbit settlement, at least to my eyes.

In addition, there are isolated towers with dread magical secrets, Orc-infested mines, Elven scouts living in ruins, and even a safe haven or two. It all makes Angmar much more interesting as a place to explore and adventure than I would have initially thought.
An odd and mysterious tower in the mountains near Angmar.

Oddly enough, at least to me, there is a section on languages. There is a discussion of how the various factions and races of the Witch-King's servants communicate, given their disparate languages. Plus, there's a fairly extensive glossary of Orc words. I'm not particularly interested in such things, since I'd just as soon reference Tolkien directly, or one of the various books and websites that detail such things. Still, it may be an interesting resource for others.

There are some other sections not seen in other MERP books. There are brief sections on creating priest and Orc characters, which provide interesting alternatives for players. There are also brief overviews of how to go about designing fortresses and settlements in Angmar, which may be a bit elementary for some, but could jog a few ideas loose. Nothing spectacular, but different enough to add some interest to the book.

As is usual, there are charts. There are charts of animals, monsters, and characters that may be encountered. There are military unit encounter tables. There is a page or so of "medicinal" plants and drugs in the region. There is a table for determining weather at a particular time. Charts and tables were a hallmark of Rolemaster, the roleplaying game from which MERP is derived, to the point that some gamers still refer to Rolemaster derisively as "Chartmaster." MERP is nowhere near as dependent on them as Rolemaster, and in recent years I've come to appreciate them for how they help make the job of running MERP, and a game in Middle-earth in general, a bit easier.

The art in either book is, unfortunately, unspectacular. There is some obvious talent here; Jim Holloway, one of my favorite game artists, and whom I've mentioned a few times, has his art all over the interior of Empire of the Witch King. His usual tongue-in-cheek style is not in evidence here, which makes sense, given the subject. Still, while it all definitely helps bring the setting to life, none of it jumps off the page at me. There are some fairly nifty spot illustrations in the earlier Angmar: Land of the Witch King, though they are few and far between.

A reasonable depiction of a Ringwraith, I assume the Witch-King, on a Fell Beast.
I can't help it; this just amuses me.

The maps are, unsurprisingly, pretty good, though some in Angmar are rather basic and uninspiring. However, Peter Fenlon's maps in Empire of the Witch-King are spectacular, as always. I wanted to show this map in its entirety, but to do so I have to make it tiny. Trust me, though; it's very detailed and gorgeous.

The covers are both top-notch, though Gail B. McIntosh's cover for Angmar, while technically good, doesn't grab me. The cover of Empire of the Witch-King, by Richard Hook, an artist I don't recall seeing work on any other MERP book, is actually a very cool cover, with astonishing detail. Not sure what the Witch-King is doing with his sword there, but it does lend the picture a snapshot quality.

Empire of the Witch-King is the second most substantial of the MERP books I've posted about here so far (after Gorgoroth), weighing in at 126 pages. Angmar: Land of the Witch-King is 48 pages long, so its revision was a substantial one. Compared to most of the other MERP books, Angmar: Land of the Witch-King seems a bit thin to me. Empire of the Witch-King seems jam-packed, even taking into consideration that it has 58 additional pages.

These books evoke a mood and feel that isn't quite what I expected. Angmar is an interesting place as described, but it doesn't seem nearly as dread and horrifying as one might expect. As I thought about it, this makes some sense. It did not have the history of being the home of ultimate evil in Middle-earth as Mordor did. Mordor had been under Sauron's direct control for millennia, and his essence infused the land such that a memory of his evil lingered long centuries after his defeat at the end of the Second Age. Angmar, though, was more of an ad hoc evil empire, created from scratch and without the resources of evil found in Mordor (though these books have the Witch-King bringing along at least one of his and Sauron's lieutenants, the Angulion, who also appears in Gorgoroth). The Witch-King seemingly cobbled together his forces from what he found in the area, rather than bringing forces with him. There were some resources available to him, what with Mount Gundabad a few days' march away. Regardless, it strikes me that he took advantage of existing antipathies between the Men who were native to the region, and the colonists and conquerors that were the Dunedain, driving a wedge into the cracks created by the fracturing of Arnor. Rhudaur had been seized by tribes native to the area, who were fairly easy to convince to join with Angmar in driving out the Dunedain invaders, giving the Witch-King a forward base and source of troops and supplies. These Men weren't completely corrupted, not at first; they were just happy to act upon old grudges held against a once-unassailable enemy who had colonized lands that were once theirs. This all shows just how tenuous both Sauron's and the Dunedain's power was in this era, a striking contrast between the truly awe-inspiring power each held in earlier ages. Angmar: Land of the Witch-King and Empire of the Witch-King conjure up a conflict between two forces hanging onto power by their fingertips, both merely shadows of their former selves.

As presented in these books, Angmar is an interesting place, full of untapped potential. As with other MERP books, I have to say it's too bad that so much work now sits largely forgotten.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Hobbit, 75 years on...

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

Hobbit-holes seem like they'd be nice places to live. Tolkien himself illustrated the quintessential hobbit-hole, Bag End. His vision of hobbit digs was surprisingly spacious to my eye, when I first saw his pictures of Bilbo's home.
More than enough headspace even for someone tall, like Gandalf. Still, it has a cozy feel to it, doesn't it? Before I got a glimpse of Tolkien's own artwork, my impression of Bag End was shaped by the work of the Brothers Hildebrandt.
Much less headspace, but that adds to the coziness. I was always taken by the fact that hobbits had clocks, as shown in this painting, but also as mentioned by Tolkien himself in the narrative of The Hobbit. It made me wonder what else they might have - manual lawnmowers, perhaps? I know Tolkien later said that clockwork mechanisms didn't really exist in Middle-earth, and that his mention of a clock in The Hobbit was just a bit of a mistake. But I like to think they did have clocks, and some simple labor-saving devices, because it fits the nature of hobbits. One of my favorite depictions of Bag End and Bilbo is By the Fireside, by Canadian artist Kim Benson. I was so taken by it that I bought a print of it.

Another clock, which adds to the cozy feel here; a quarter after ten seems like a nice, comfortable time to be settled down and drifting off into the night. Oh, it's not as great as after Midnight, of course, but I'm sure Bilbo will still be there into the wee hours.

These depictions of Bag End are what The Hobbit means to me - warmth and coziness, tales and reflections of life and adventures, recounted from a comfortable armchair, the danger now at arm's length, the spiders and trolls and the dragon, yes, even the dragon, slightly silly and a tad comical in retrospect. A tale well-told, the evening drawing down, good triumphant and home snug and warm.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Adventures in the wilds of Middle-earth - Phantom of the Northern Marches, Trolls of the Misty Mountains, and Haunted Ruins of the Dunlendings

By this point, I've covered almost all the Middle-earth Roleplaying books I own that are set in Eriador. The only ones left that are set west of the Misty Mountains are adventures, which differ from the books that I've discussed up until now. Adventures are more focused, concentrating on relatively small areas, but which are more nebulous in exactly where they are set. They are more about small-scale problems that need solving than sweeping history and epic quests.These problems range from missing people to giants roaming the land to ghostly manifestations. Doughty warriors, mysterious mages, ruthless bandits, and decadent nobles help and hinder the characters belonging to the players. This is the kind of stuff the Rangers took care of, or which slowed Gandalf down when he wasn't hanging out in Hobbiton. It's not all thumping the Balrog or tossing Rings into volcanoes.

First up is Phantom of the Northern Marches.

Daniel Horne is one of my favorite fantasy artists, and he did - and still does, I think - quite a bit of roleplaying game work, including some great Dragon Magazine covers. One of them is one of my favorite D&D images, ever.
Nowadays he seems to be concentrating on classic monster paintings and sculptures. Regardless, I've never seen a bad painting by him. He didn't do a lot of work for MERP (Middle-earth Roleplaying), but what he did was striking.

Besides Horne's fantastic cover, there is a bit of decent interior art, including maps that are different from the gorgeous Middle-earth maps I usually rave about. The maps here are more tactical in nature, showing monster lairs and the like.

Ridorthu has simple tastes, apparently.
The titular Northern Marches are the northern edges of Arthedain and Rhudaur, a rather bleak, wild region of Middle-earth even at the best of times. The town of Novtha Rhaglaw, besides being afflicted with an awkward-to-say name, is an isolated, somewhat ramshackle place. Not far from the land of the Witch-king, Angmar, it nevertheless remains untouched, though doom hangs in the air.

Phantom of the Northern Marches has three main adventures:

The Phantom of the Woods: The folk of Novtha Raglaw are puzzled and unsettled by tales of missing shepherds and strange lights in the woods. Now, a hunter has turned up dead. Could this be the work of barrow-wights, or forces of the Witch-king? Or some other dastardly villain?

The Riddle of Ridorthu: Farms in the area of Novtha Rhaglaw have had livestock come up missing. Huge footprints have been found. Strange sounds in the night seem to come from an invisible source. Shepherding seems to be a hazardous job in Novtha Rhaglaw, as yet another poor sap of that profession is found knocked senseless. So what's going on? It's up to the players and their characters to find out.

Gerse's Bane: A dragon rampages throughout the area. A classic fantasy game scenario, this could spell the end of the player's characters if they aren't careful and don't manage to enlist some aid...could tales of an ancient warrior hold the clue to the dragon's defeat?
The book details the town of Novtha Rhaglaw and its inhabitants, giving characters for the players to interact with. It's a pretty standard affair for a roleplaying game, though the adventures here have more of a fairy tale air than those for games like Dungeons & Dragons. Still, these types of adventures are a tested formula for success, with success defined as the players having fun.

Next, let's look at Trolls of the Misty Mountains.

Yep, another Daniel Horne cover. What's aggravating is that Iron Crown Enteprises (ICE), publisher of MERP, chose to do some of these covers as semi-wrap-arounds, with about a third of the image continued on the back cover. While this makes for a nice, almost letterboxed look, it's tough to scan and even tougher to post the two parts side-by-side here on blogger.

Yeah, tiny, I know. That's the only way I could get them to sit side-by-side. Here's a bigger version of the front cover, because it deserves to be seen.

Cool stuff, huh? Horne definitely has his own take on what trolls look like, and I think his interpretation is pretty fun, yet a little scary, though in a children's-storybook way. Even some of the interior art, by Denis Loubet, is whimsical.
Trolls aren't the most observant creatures.
Trolls of the Misty Mountains is set in the region of Rhudaur that approaches the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. As you might have guessed, there is gonna be a good bit of troll action in this one. As with Phantom of the Northern Marches, Trolls of the Misty Mountains has three main adventures. The adventures are linked by a couple of isolated fortresses of Arthedain, which has tried to extend its grasp now that its brother-kingdoms of Cardolan and Rhudaur are gone, or nearly so. The players' characters are sent out to scout for the construction of a road between the fortresses. But, y'know, there are trolls, so it's not just a surveying job.

The Adventure of Duildin Hill involves farmers approaching the characters of the players to help them get rid of trolls raiding their farms. Guess where the trolls live? It's a fairly straightforward mission, but there are a few complications that may not be too much of a surprise. Still, it's an adventure in the classic mold.

Adventure at the Village of Garkash is another classic, and is also straightforward. An orc village has a bridge that lies right on the route for the road the player characters are scouting. It may seem uncomplicated, but the orcs have a few surprises to spring.

Adventure at Maes Fao is set in a forbidding gorge on the path of the proposed road. The player characters end up searching for an ancient artifact, an heirloom of the last king of Rhudaur. They aren't the only ones, though; the Dark Lord's reach is long, and his agents seem everywhere. There are trolls, yes, but they may only be tools of more calculating villains.

Trolls of the Misty Mountains is a pretty good mini-campaign for characters still learning to be heroes.

Haunted Ruins of the Dunlendings is, technically, not set in Eriador, but was more intended to be set somewhere near the Paths of the Dead in the White Mountains of Gondor. Still, as is stated in the book itself, it can be set just about anywhere Dunlendings live or once lived. This includes the Southern Misty Mountains.
This time, the wraparound cover is by Gail B. McIntosh, who did other MERP covers, including Hillmen of the Trollshaws. This cover is exceptional, also evoking a fairytale feel, reminding me a bit of Victorian-era illustrations by artists like Anne Anderson.
The Miller's Daughter by Anne Anderson
Anyway, this McIntosh cover deserves to be shown larger, so here 'tis.

 As with the other two books I've discussed in this post, this one has three adventures.

Adventure at Minas Anghen involves the tower of a Seer, or wise woman. The trade road that runs near the tower has become a dangerous place, with passing merchants often ambushed and robbed or slain. Rooting out the bandits and discovering the fate of the Seer and her tower draws the player characters to the area.

There are some nifty maps and schematics in this book, and Minas Anghen is the subject of some of the better ones.

Side view of Minas Anghen
Adventure at the Seven Stones (Setmaenen) is set at a site sacred to the Dunlendings, a stone dome with surrounding standing stones. A cursed artifact has made the place unclean, and the site has been closed off until the Dunlendings have made right the Oathbreaking, which is where they betrayed oaths they made to Gondor and the Elves. By the way - this curse was only lifted when Aragorn called on the Dead Men of Dunharrow to fulfill their Oaths, and help smash Umbar and rescue Minas Tirith. So, this adventure may be more or less interesting depending on the time period in which it is used. 

This adventure also has some nifty pics, the best of which is this one:

Adventure at Hogo Tarosvan deals with a site where the cursed dead were buried in cliffside caves, a forgotten village, and a fertile valley. This particular adventure is especially spooky, but is also more wide-ranging, both in territory and theme. The writers manage to evoke a feeling of evil that is not exactly that of Sauron, but is dreaded nonetheless. This one also has some interesting pictures.

 I also would be remiss if I didn't share this truly awesome picture by Jim Holloway, which deserves a spot of its own on this post:
These three books present an interesting glimpse of Middle-earth from a perspective not often delved into. Beyond the forests of the Elves and the Shire of the Hobbits, the wilds of Middle-earth are open and trackless, full of ancient and forgotten danger. I think my reassessment of these books is among the more radical of those I've made as I've done these Middle-earth roleplaying blogs. I didn't think much of them for the longest time, but looking at them in the context of what I've read and commented on up to this point, they really seem to have more substance and interest than I ever gave them credit for.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Back to Middle-earth: Thieves of Tharbad

Another great cover by Angus McBride.
We don't see much in the way of cities in The Lord of the Rings. The only ones of note are Edoras in Rohan and Minas Tirith, and Edoras isn't so much a city as a fairly large walled town. Beyond those, everything else is a village. So it's easy to assume that cities are few and far between in Middle-earth, and the few we know about are more like fortresses, or are ruined.

This presents a problem to anyone wanting to play the Middle-earth Roleplaying game. Cities are a staple of gaming, especially freewheeling dens of iniquity teeming with all manner of riffraff and ne'er-do-wells. They provide all manner of opportunities for players to have their characters to rough up and be roughed up, cheat and be cheated, and generally cause all kinds of mayhem while losing all those gold pieces they stole from a dragon or goblin patrol. Trouble is, all of that is hard to do in Middle-earth, with its sleepy villages and de facto military camps.

It's a poor roleplaying game indeed without the possibility of running afoul of a city watch and gangs of thieves. So, the Middle-earth Roleplaying folks settled on Tharbad. Sitting astride the Gwathlo river, Tharbad was one of the biggest settlements in Cardolan, and outlasted that realm by centuries, falling into disrepair and dwindling in population until it finally fell into ruin and became empty of inhabitants a few decades before Bilbo set out on his famous journey. Given that MERP books used a default time setting 1300 years before Bilbo's time, this doesn't present a problem, unless you want to use this site during the time of the War of the Ring. Still, as I usually say, it's easy enough to swap Tharbad out with another city or move the time period after the War of the Ring, when Aragorn, as King Elessar, begins a project to rebuild and repopulate that part of Middle-earth.

This book is pretty typical for its kind. The city is broken down into quarters, with prominent buildings and citizens detailed. Adventures are presented, from stolen crown jewels to smuggling. There's a princess who's the last scion of a fallen kingdom, assorted thugs, imperial envoys, spies, military captains, and assorted other movers, shakers, and cutthroats. Plenty of trouble for the players to have their characters stumble into.
To make these reasonably visible...
...I couldn't place them side-by-side.
This book takes a little getting used to for someone who's read The Lord of the Rings - or The Hobbit, for that matter. This game version of Tharbad doesn't jibe with anything in those books; Boromir mentions it in passing while discussing his errand to find Rivendell, with the only notable things said about Tharbad being that he lost his horse there and had to walk the rest of the way. It didn't just run away; it was apparently killed at the ford on the river Gwathlo there, a ford comprised of the fallen pieces of a once-major bridge. Boromir was kind of a modest bad-ass sometimes. It's too bad not much is told of that journey from Minas Tirith to Rivendell, because it had to be epic, in the true sense of the word. Regardless, Tharbad was a deserted ruin at that time, destroyed by time and floods.
Tharbad and its environs: northwest lie the Barrow-downs; further north is Amon Sul, or Weathertop.

In the context of playing a Middle-earth game set in the time of Frodo and Bilbo, the book has limited usability. There are notes on the surrounding flora and fauna, and the ubiquitous MERP charts of characters and creatures. There is a schematic of the sewers of Tharbad, which is handy, because game characters tend to always end up in sewers eventually. But that's not much material that will get use. Like I said, it could be used as a city elsewhere, straddling another river in Middle-earth or an entirely different fantasy setting.
Sewers always seem like much cooler places for adventure than they can possibly be in real life.
Tharbad does make an appearance in the MERP mega-adventure Palantir Quest, set in the Fourth Age of Middle-earth, early during the reign of King Elessar after Sauron's defeat. In that epic adventure, Tharbad is being rebuilt, a revived frontier town working to return to life. In that context, Thieves of Tharbad might have a bit of use, as thugs and drifters who once served in Sauron's armies, as well as Saruman's knuckleheads who survived a thrashing in the Shire, head out to find new places to bedevil.

This place evokes a feeling of melancholy in me. Tharbad hung on long after its kingdom, Cardolan, fell, struggling on through the long years alone and isolated in the increasingly wild surroundings. Its last residents fled or were drowned in floods, with only several decades between them and salvation by a revived Arnor. Middle-earth history aside, this book is usable, though unremarkable. Placing it into the context of the setting it was intended for lends it more interest, but it still lacks excitement as written. The Angus McBride cover, and the Peter Fenlon maps, are, as usual, spectacular, and do pump some life into the book. I would have liked to see Tharbad presented as a haunted ruin, a haven for brigands and ghosts and assorted orcs and trolls, with the occasional Ranger patrol swinging by to roust out the bad guys.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Middle-earth Roleplaying books, and why I post about them so much.

In case you've wondered...

Those following along will no doubt notice I've concentrated on Middle-earth Roleplaying (MERP) Game products quite a bit these past few months. To give myself structure, and to cover a subject I don't see much coverage of these days, I landed on these books as just the ticket. As time has gone along, the project has taken on a life of its own, as I work to cover and analyze and reminisce upon all the MERP books I own. It's definitely an obscure subject to some, especially those with no interest in gaming. The internet, though, is the haven for the obscure.

The truly unfortunate thing about MERP is that the books for it will almost certainly never see print again. The license for Tolkien's work is long gone for MERP. The books become more rare as time goes along, the prices for those that turn up on Amazon and eBay steadily escalate. The work put into them languishes. It's truly unfortunate, as the longer I pore over these books, the more I recognize just how good they are, how useful. The art, the writing, the game design, the charts...all are a wealth of largely untapped potential.

I don't know the solution. Perhaps rewrite it all to remove Tolkien's intellectual property? The removal and replacement of names, a reworking of the map, and much of it could easily be used in the context of another game. After all, Tolkien's impact upon fantasy roleplaying games is obvious and profound, and much of the material in these books is not anything Tolkien created. But, the amount of work to do all this might be enough that one might just as well create entirely new material instead.

The MERP line was extensive and long-lived, for a while a legitimate and major competitor in the roleplaying game field. I hope I've shown why that was, and called attention to the work of many talented folk who go unsung.

On another, related, note, website io9 posted an interesting article about Tolkien reading a poem from The Lord of Rings in Elvish. Included are links to YouTube videos of a couple of renditions by musicians, one of whom, Donald Swann, arranged and performed his version while Tolkien was still alive. The musical interpretations are very moody, with Swann's being almost liturgical in feel, and capturing the melancholy of the poem's lament. Tolkien reading his own work is a revelation with each listen, the language he created for his Elves liquid and stately as spoken by him. It's absolutely worth clicking the links if you're a Tolkien fan. It's also worth listening to Tolkien read from "Riddles in the Dark," a chapter from The Hobbit.

Tolkien has a way of evoking the dark, silent, orc-infested underworld in which Gollum lived and Bilbo unhappily found himself, using only his voice and well-chosen words. There are collections of his recordings, and it's too bad he didn't record even more; his oratorical style is almost hypnotic in its intensity and confidence.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Book of Weird


I mentioned previously that The Book of Weird by Barbara Ninde Byfield was worthy of a post of its own, so here it is.

I've had this book for 15 or 16 years. It seems like I can't recall a time when I didn't have it; it has a timeless quality, and is, as mentioned on the book's cover itself, a lexicon, or glossary, for fairytales. It's an amusing conceit, the attempt to define terms and concepts for such a nebulous subject. Byfield's definitions are both tongue-in-cheek and incisively cogent, homing in on and pulling out elements from stories we all know and love, but may never have put much thought into.

The art is atmospheric. There was an era, roughly from the mid-'60s into the mid-'70s, where a lot of kid-oriented art had a sketchy, whimsical look. Scratchy pen 'n' ink, black & white illustrations evoked a unique mood.

Timeless, knowing, deft. Byfield has the ability to capture and project characters with thought and emotion. So, too, is she adept at dreamscapes, conjuring images of places that seem at once rooted in reality, but also co-existing in a fairytale kingdom.

 Byfield has a way of winnowing down a concept from familiar stories, ones we all recognize, and encapsulating it in an instantly recognizable way, whether with words or with drawings, but often with both. Dig her definition of Wizards; first, a picture with a nifty caption.

The word should be "poring," but still.
A fine figure of a wizard, one instantly recognizable due to his - or his literary doppelgangers' - prevalence throughout Western legend and literature.

But Byfield isn't done with Wizards; they're too prominent in our consciousness, they loom too large in our legends. Witness how she manages to succinctly capture the essence of Wizards with carefully chosen words:


There are a number of artists who leap to mind when I page through The Book of Weird, which was illustrated by the author. Byfield's contemporaries included such artists as:

Shel Silverstein

E.L. Konigsburg
Roald Dahl
Emily McCully

Marilyn Fitschen

There is a loose, jangly look to this art. It often is as striking for what is not shown than what is, with minimal backgrounds. Or, if the backgrounds are elaborate, details are so finely picked-out that there is a remote feel to it, as though we're watching from a distance that is both physical and temporal, like looking at an old, old photograph of a time long lost. I saw art like this so often as a kid, that it became second nature to me. Of course these worlds of the fantastic - and some not-so-fantastic - looked this way! They all shared a reality that ranged from bucolic suburbs to magic-infused lands that never were. That's why, even though I was an adult when I discovered The Book of Weird, it struck a chord with me.

Somewhere along the way, I became aware that this book was a source for Gary Gygax, as he worked on what became the Dungeons & Dragons game we're familiar with. I hadn't known that when I first bought The Book of Weird, but it became a revelation when it clicked. Suddenly the influence of this book on the game became obvious. When I first became acquainted with D&D, it evoked a world that was amorphous, where whimsy was the rule, with endless dungeons and wilderness-besieged fortresses in an ever-changing landscape. The Greyhawk Folio was still a bit in the future, so what little setting information existed was embedded in the rulebooks, creating by implication more so than by definition. There was definitely more whimsy and tongue-in-cheek attitude in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks than what came later, with capricious wizards, obscure terms, and a more pseudo-Medieval look and feel that seems similar to what Byfield created in her book, than later D&D iterations. A good bit of the art in those early AD&D books, especially by David C. Sutherland III, was similar to the art of Barbara Byfield in The Book of Weird. Compare Byfield's lineup of giants, trolls, and ogres:

to a similar line-up of beings by Sutherland in the AD&D Player's Handbook:

Or this moody image of a wizard by Byfield:

with an equally dark and mysterious piece by Sutherland:

Byfield's impression of inhabitants of Faerie:

jibes well with Sutherland's view of similar creatures in the AD&D Fiend Folio:

A definite similarity. I doubt it was intentional, but as I said above, the kind of art in The Book of Weird was similar to a style that was fairly common in fantasy at one time. Something about the fantasy zeitgeist then was more about whimsy than grit, more The Hobbit than The Lord of the Rings, the latter just beginning to make its influence known on the fantasy genre at large. Even the mighty Frazetta, dominating the covers of swords & sorcery novels at the time, was having only minimal impact on D&D's art.

Let's set aside the influence of The Book of Weird on games. On its own, The Book of Weird is a delightful nonesuch, the kind of book that lends a bit of literary magic to any library, that is a bit of wondrous treasure waiting to be stumbled upon among the stacks. There is no pretense, no multiple phonebook-thick volumes, just a wealth of imagination that can appeal to kids and adults. I subtitled this blog "a look at things best viewed after Midnight," and The Book of Weird is precisely that, though it is just as good for whiling away a rainy day or a Winter's evening, a dreamy little book that I'm glad I own.