Sunday, January 27, 2013

A wretched hive of scum and villainy: Brigands of Mirkwood

South of the East Bight, the treeless gouge in the eastern side of Mirkwood, a shadow has crept across the forest. Grim folk and dark creatures make their homes there, while others are transients, moving from one evil place in Middle-earth to another. Mercenaries, spies, and unscrupulous merchants ply their trades from the empty lands West of the Misty Mountains to the plains of the East, Rhun and beyond. Just beyond the East Bight is a crossroads of sorts, the town of Strayhold. Corrupt and colorful, few of the good folk of Middle-earth find their way here. Instead, it is the base for the Brigands of Mirkwood.
The ragged-edged town of Strayhold is a strange place in Middle-earth. Perpetually awake, the flames of torches and lanterns has caused some to dub it Fire Town. It seems a festive place in some ways, with music and carousing to be found at all hours. Yet, it is a festivity that is much like a nightmarish version of the grand celebrations of the Elven-king's court far to the North. Here, though, there is no underlying decency and concern for the well-being of others. The populace is a random hodge-podge of bandits and refugees, earning it the name of Strayhold quite deservedly.

This is a place that will draw the attention of any adventurer in Middle-earth. The foes of the Dark Lord, and those who would do his bidding, will both find much to attract them. It is a raucous place, with the energy of a frontier town, and the decadence of a civilization in decline, corrupted by long years of being a waystation for those who travel to the haunted lands of Middle-earth.

Southern Mirkwood and the lands beyond; Strayhold lies in the southeastern quarter of the map, just beyond the "thumb" of Mirkwood sticking out below the East Bight.
Strayhold is an "evil twin" of many places in Middle-earth. It has the raucous holiday energy of the Elven-king's realm, a melting-pot populace that echoes that of Bree-land, and a wildness that must be akin to that of Tharbad in its decline. The book details numerous characters for the player's characters to deal with, and numerous sites within the town that will naturally draw attention. These latter range from the inevitable taverns to guild-halls for thieves and beggars. The entire city is a black market, with just about any good or item in Middle-earth being available here, for a price. Strayhold is a town for those who have no place left to go, or those who are on their way to even less savory places.

Besides extensive descriptions of the people and places of Strayhold, the book also contains several adventures, three of which are the main focus of the book. Excursion to the City of Strays involves the player characters being hired to acquire a book from a bookseller in the "beggars quarter" part of the town. This is primarily a MacGuffin to get the characters into the town and get a good dose of the two-fisted, fun side of the place. Raid on the Clan-Hall of Rogues has the player's characters asked by some good folk to recover a horn sacred to them from the titular location - the thieves' guild, in other words. The Castle of Leardinoth has no less a personage than Gandalf the Grey himself(!) enlisting the player characters to take down the evil wizard who rules over Strayhold. This will be no easy task, even taking into account that it requires having fun storming the castle; the wizard was trained by no less a personage than the Necromancer himself(!!) In addition, there are a few adventure ideas to keep the player characters busy in the town.

All in all, Brigands of Mirkwood is a solid little book in the Middle-earth Roleplaying line from Iron Crown Enterprises. The Angus McBride cover is dynamic, and the maps, especially the always-impressive regional map by Peter Fenlon, are colorful and evocative. The book gets close to the line between what I think Middle-earth "feels" like and what it doesn't "feel" like, and, I think, straddles that line a bit. Still, the designers did a pretty decent job extrapolating how such a location would come to be and continue to exist in Middle-earth, without resorting to anything truly outlandish.

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