Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Over the bounding main in Middle-earth: Sea-Lords of Gondor - Palargir and Lebennin

The Dunedain were mighty mariners, ruling the waves of Middle-earth. This is only natural, as they were given an island nation as a home - Numenor. From this star-shaped land, they plied the seas, colonizing Middle-earth at will, building great realms, and throwing back Sauron's shadow wherever they went. This power led to their downfall, as they dared to invade the Undying Lands in order to claim immortality for themselves. Yet their seamanship was also their salvation, as the Faithful, those who refused to adhere to the folly of their brethren, escaped by way of a small fleet of ships the utter destruction of Numenor as it was drowned beneath the sea. They remained great sailors, with Gondor a great sea power throughout its history, bedeviled by Black Numenoreans, the remainder of the arrogantly evil Dunedain who escaped the destruction of their island-nation and founded their own sea-focused realms in Umbar and further South.

The Havens of Gondor was a portion of Gondor's seagoing strength, but further south lay Lebennin, a beautiful land which held the greatest of Gondor's ports - Pelargir. Closer to Umbar, it seems natural that naval power would be a focus of the region. Gondor dueled with Umbar for centuries, fending off many sea invasions and mounting attacks against a foe which was a dark reflection of itself. Pelargir, a great haven of the Numenoreans, was the chief base for Gondor's defense of its southern ocean approaches.

This book covers the mighty port of Pelargir, which means "Garth of Royal Ships." What's a garth, you ask? Basically, a shipyard, at least in this context. So, just by the name we know this is both the main port and shipbuilding center of Gondor. Well, we can infer it.

Also covered is Lebennin, referred to as Fair Lebennin of the Five Streams; Lebennin means "five waters" in the language of the Sindarin Elves. This echoes the Land of Five Rivers, which is the Punjab region in the real world. I don't know if Tolkien meant any connection there, though I tend to doubt it. Since this is a game book, and subject to the whims of the individual gamer, trying to make a connection might lend some depth and interest to the area.

As with most MERP books, Sea-Lords of Gondor has a historical timeline and overviews of the climate, cultures, creatures, and geography of the region. Well-watered, generally mild, civilized, and densely-populated (relatively speaking), Lebennin and Pelargir, as described in this book, remind me a bit of San Diego with more access to fresh water. As with Dor-en-Ernil, characters are unlikely to find much sword-swinging adventure here...in most eras.

Pelargir has the distinction of being where the Kin-Strife began. This is the period when some of the seaside provinces of Gondor rebelled against what they perceived as favoritism towards Northmen and the inner lands of Gondor. Castamir the Usurper, lord of Gondor's navy, seized the throne, driving away king Eldacar and executing his son.
Liz Danforth's portrait reveals nobility and humanity in one of the most divisive and hated figures in Gondor's history. It's an interesting portrayal.

After a decade of ruling Gondor, Castamir was slain by Eldacar, and the sons of Castamir, with his forces, fled South, seizing Umbar. Thus, the centuries-old enmity between Umbar and Gondor, specifically Pelargir, was not only reinforced, but made more immediate. This would continue for centuries, with Aragorn himself responsible for destroying Umbar's forces not once, but twice, and eventually conquering the haven of evil once and for all, thus bringing to an end the saga of the Kin-Strife once and for all.

The rivalry and jealousy between Umbar and Pelargir provides a great hook for adventures in Middle-earth. Spying, piracy, direct combat, sorcery, and agents of Sauron himself can be found in Umbar. Pelargir itself, as well as the entire coast of Lebennin, is attacked by Umbar often, especially during the War of the Ring. Much of Gondor's strength in the coastal regions was tied down defending against corsair invasions from Umbar, and could not be sent to defend Minas Tirith when Sauron sent his armies to finally attack that great city. Players could find their characters working to stave off invaders, or making preemptive strikes to stall Umbar's depredations so forces could be freed up to help Gondor's capital. The entire region, during most any era, could be the site of adventures.

A number of sites are detailed in this book. Oddly, Pelargir, despite being such a major city, is given just a little over two pages of fairly cursory attention. Maybe Iron Crown Enterprises had planned on a book devoted to just Pelargir itself, much as they did with Minas Tirith.This book has an appealing, good-sized map of the city, with a numbered key to sites within it, but as I noted, it's pretty sparse in detail.

There are a few towns discussed with a couple of paragraphs' worth of detail, some stronghold areas, and ancient burial sites for Dunlendings. Tolfalas, a large island off the coast which is only sparsely inhabited, is discussed, and it has potential for mysterious exploration. Subject to constant raiding and wild weather, Tolfalas is remote enough to discourage all but a handful of hardy souls from living there, and few others come to explore its hills and ruins.
Belfalas to the West (covered in Havens of Gondor), and the wild, largely empty island of Tolfalas central and to the South. To the northeast lies Pelargir.

It's a varied assortment of sites, though, to be blunt, a bit on the dull side. Still, there's a solid core of material to work with, and any gamemaster worth his salt can use it to create a wide spectrum of adventures.

Interestingly, and unique to the MERP books with which I'm familiar, Sea-Lords of Gondor also has a section concerning ships and ship combat in the game. It's a basic sea-warfare game, and includes statistics for several ships, including those of Gondor and its foes. It's not the most inspiring game, but it will do for those who are more focused on characters rather than ships.

The art is fairly notable in this book. Most obviously, the cover image by the redoubtable Angus McBride is a dynamic seaborne battle between a warrior of Gondor and a warrior of Umbar. You can just tell that the deck pitches and rolls beneath them, as battle swirls all around in a clash of steel and wood. The interior is dominated by maps. The Pelargir map by Jessica Ney is clear and usable, and Peter Fenlon's maps are outstanding, as usual.

This is a great depiction of the portion of Gondor closest to the shadowy land of Mordor, with Minas Tirith north and center, and Pelargir to the southwest.

Besides the maps, illustrations are sparse, but they're by the always-talented Liz Danforth. The picture of Castamir above is my favorite in the book, and one of my favorite character pictures by Danforth. A nice assortment of illustrations, but I was left feeling that I didn't have a really good idea of the "look" of the region and its folk.

This is a good, solid entry in the Middle-earth Roleplaying line, though I feel it's a bit bland. Lebennin and Pelargir seem, based on the history of the place Tolkien created, to be full of exciting potential, but that is not close to fully realized here. Still, it's a good start, and a nice reference.

1 comment:

  1. Man, those maps, as always, fire my imagination. Excellent summary.

    I sincerely hope there is a gamemaster out there who has bookmarked your site and is as-we-type leading PCs through these things. It's downright sad to think such a wealth of detail and opportunity might be lying fallow/ collecting dust in the back of some gaming store/ warehouse. (Next to the Ark of the Covenant, perhaps.)