Sunday, December 2, 2012

Way Up Middle-earth: The Grey Mountains

We go now from the vibrant far Southern reaches of Middle-earth, to the cold, windswept, mountainous North. One-time home to a Dwarven kingdom, it became the home to some of Middle-earth's most dangerous creatures: Dragons. These are the Grey Mountains.
The Withered Heath is the basin-shaped area between arms of the Grey Mountains to the North. Erebor, or the Lonely Mountain, is just south of central on this map, with the Long Lake on the Southern edge, and Mirkwood to the West.
Removed from much of the grand history of Middle-earth, the Grey Mountains nevertheless played an important role. They loomed in the distance from Mirkwood and Erebor, a haven for threats to the Free Peoples.

 While Dragons were the most spectacular of the region's inhabitants, Orcs also came to infest it, and doubtlessly they assumed ownership of the Dwarven halls delved under the mountains, once the Dwarves fled or were killed. That is, the Orcs took ownership of the fortresses the Dragons did not take for themselves. From then on, the folk of Northern Mirkwood and the surrounding lands had to be wary of attack from the North, drawing attention away from Sauron's machinations in the South.

Within the Grey Mountains is a vast plain called the Withered Heath. This desolate land is the stomping grounds of the Dragons, where they fight and, presumably, mate, far from the eyes of Elves and Men. They seem largely content to stay there, though occasionally one may decide to foray South and seize treasure for its own. The greatest of these conquerors was Smaug the Golden, who took the Lonely Mountain as his home, driving away and killing the Dwarves there, as well as making a ghost town of Dale. Smaug was the greatest of his kind in the Third Age of Middle-earth, but that is not to say his brethren in the Grey Mountains were of no consequence; without doubt similar scenes of destruction took place in Dwarven holds there, too.

This is one of my favorite Middle-earth Roleplaying books. It takes a region that Tolkien gave a little detail about, and manages to flesh it out in a way that seems appropriate to the setting. It's also interesting in its own right, separate from Middle-earth. It's a wild, rugged place by the time of Bilbo and Frodo, bleak and forbidding. The book details Dwarven underground cities and fortresses, an Orc fortress, a Mannish village, and the lairs of some of the Dragons who live in the Grey Mountains and the Withered Heath. An overview of the climate, flora and fauna is given, with Dragons as the apex predators, but bears, lions, and wolves also prowl about, preying on the reindeer, elk, and goats indigenous to the area. It's an area rich in adventure possibilities.
...and I didn't even mention the giants...
 Add in that far to the West, commanding the gap where the Grey Mountains end and the northernmost point of the Misty Mountains begin, stands Mount Gundabad. This great mountain-city, capital of an Orc kingdom, is an anchor-point for the Shadow in the North, and the Orc-King there draws strength from and exerts influence over the Orcs of the Grey Mountains. Even further West lays Angmar, one-time Empire of the Witch-King, and later a haunted land; between it, Mount Gundabad, and the Grey Mountains, the North of Middle-earth is a de facto bastion of evil. For a game, that's a good thing. After all, heroes need evil to fight.
Orcs on a dark expedition.

The Grey Mountains includes a mini-campaign of adventures that involve the characters belonging to the players to help defend a town from Orc raids and assorted other threats. Besides that, the various locations discussed in the book are implicitly ripe for adventure. The Dwarven strongholds, once abandoned, become lost cities waiting to be explored and cleared out, whether they have become homes to Orcs or Dragons.
A one-time bastion of the Dwarves, now lost and defiled by Orcs.
One level of several of a Dwarven city deep under the Grey Mountains. Yet another citadel of Dwarves now in the hands of evil.

A Grey Mountain Dwarven hall in happier times...and I realize the irony that this is a depiction of a funeral.
The book is pretty much chock-full of things for heroes to do. The mini-campaign - and the Dwarven settlements, if the Dwarves are still there - provides an opportunity for interaction between the player's characters and townsfolk, if that's the player's bag. But, if they're more the straightforward kind, who simply want to bash some heads and take some treasure, there is plenty of opportunity for that here.

This is a well-put-together book. It's a setting ripe for adventure. Being tucked away from much of the narrative action of The Lord of the Rings doesn't necessarily mean it wasn't important. Morgoth, Sauron's boss, had his base in the far North of Middle-earth, though that entire portion of the continent to the West was smashed out of existence at the end of the First Age. Still, some remnant of his memory could now still haunt those northern reaches that remain.
Homesteading in the Grey Mountains is not advised.

Certainly such lingering evil can be inferred from the fact that Tolkien made it a haven for Dragons, and it was accessible to places like Mount Gundabad and Angmar. What kept the Dragons there, rather than sallying South into the lands of the Free Peoples? Was it a lack of ambition on the part of Dragons? After driving away the Dwarves and claiming the treasures of that folk, did they simply decide it was easier to remain in the North and occasionally tangle with one another, rather than come into conflict with Men and Elves? Why was Smaug the only one to come South and make his mark? Did some other force for good tie down the Dragons, taking the fight to those Wyrms in the Grey Mountains and Withered Heath? Perhaps Smaug's presence prevented lesser Dragons from foraying out of their traditional territory, and Smaug's subsequent death gave them a healthy dose of fear at the capabilities of the smaller folk of Middle-earth. Whatever the reasons, there is a load of possibility to this region.

1 comment:

  1. I'm unsure of whether this is a terrain that I remember referenced and captured my imagination at the time, or the general apparent quality of the RPG/ images, or the quality of the overview/ food-for-thought, but this is your personal best, I think.

    I always had the same question of Smaug (The Hobbit, as mentioned elsewhere, is really the only Tolkien text with which I'm familiar enough to have such a question)

    I think hundreds of campaigns in this setting would be a fun way to spend a few RPG years.