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.

1 comment:

  1. Your description/ overview really makes me want to see this done as a film, or a whole series. Good stuff.

    As per usual, these maps really capture my imagination.