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.

1 comment:

  1. While I'm unfamiliar with the content described here, that cover (and that first map) is really eye catching and well-done.

    And Angus McBride is just a fantastic name. Well done, Ma and Pa McBride.